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Batata Cafe

Fresh baked muffins at Batata Cafe in Northport.

Fresh baked muffins at Batata Cafe in Northport. (October 27, 2010) Credit: Photo by Jesse Newman

(NOTE: Batata no longer serving dinner, 2/2010)

Like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, Batata Cafe has a dual identity. By day, this 3-year-old cafe is an order-at-the-counter eatery, serving pancakes, soups, salad and wraps. But lately, three nights a week, it has morphed into a tapas restaurant with table service and a wine and beer menu. In superhero fashion, chef Bill Gillin turns out a compelling array of small plates - all less than $10 apiece.

My evening kicks off with a rousing hummus trio - black bean, roasted red pepper and classic hummus - accompanied by triangles of warm house-made whole-wheat pita. A spinach salad with goat cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries is bright and fresh but, in comparison, humdrum.

We order a special of jerk- seasoned seared tuna with mango salsa, a sprightly composition. Plantain-crusted empanadas stuffed with guacamole add a lively Latin note. I'm taken with the three-bean vegetarian chili as well as the meltingly tender braised short ribs with Yukon gold mashed potatoes and warm mango salsa. Vegan lentil loaf with chipotle tomato sauce turns out to be a surprise hit.

But steamed chicken dumplings paired with a thick peanut sauce are heavy eating. And "really good mac and cheese" is simply good.

What's great is the perfect creme brulee - the top shatters like glass at the touch of my spoon.

At a venue decorated with works of local artists, one would expect better background music than the static, nondescript stuff that fills the room. Sound check, please.

Breakfast is a mixed experience. A "ranchero" burrito (eggs, rice, black beans and house-made salsa) is zesty, but 10-grain hot cereal is soupy and undercooked.

At lunch, I'm warmed by a nuanced bowl of Thai red curry chicken soup. Vegan vegetable soup, while fine, isn't in the same league. A haphazardly tossed (rather than artfully arranged) Cobb salad has the right ingredients (greens, chicken, hard-cooked egg, avocado, bacon, grape tomatoes and crumbled Bleu cheese), making for satisfying eating. Better yet is a panino of smoked Virginia ham, Brie, sliced apple, greens and honey Dijon spread.

BOTTOM LINE: With such an earnest and creative team, I expect this spot to continue evolving. 

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