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Upper Crust Cafe

The Ruben burger is served with a pickle

The Ruben burger is served with a pickle and potato chips at Upper Crust Cafe in Garden City. (Sept. 30, 2009) Credit: Yana Paskova

Upper Crust Cafe defies easy definition. Is it a coffee shop? A serious restaurant? It used to serve breakfast and lunch, but breakfast was jettisoned (replaced by weekend brunch) and dinner added, along with candlelight and a well-composed wine list.

Co-owners Nicholas Lucchesi and Ashley Lemire bought the place a year ago and haven't stopped tweaking. Lucchesi, who owned the former Toque and Lucca in Bellmore, is chef; Lemire, former bar director at Walk Street in Garden City, is the wine expert.

Upper crust

Vibrancy defines a Santa Fe salad of greens, mango, black beans, grilled corn, avocado and a toasted cumin vinaigrette. A rousing appetizer special of grilled whole calamari with tomatoes, olive oil and lemon features tender smoky squid. I'm especially taken with the three-cheese mac 'n' cheese laced with wild mushrooms, scallions and roasted cherry tomatoes.

Although it perturbs me that "roasted chicken" is actually a breast, the meat is moist and flavorful, topped with a bright chimichurri sauce. I like the turkey burger "Cali" style (with sliced avocado, grilled tomatoes and Monterey Jack cheese); an over-the-top Reuben burger (with corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese) is so good, I hardly mind it's overcooked.

Lucchesi's bread pudding with caramel sauce is a treat. So is home-style peach pie a la mode. But it's rice pudding crème brûlée with pistachios and rum-soaked dried cranberries that steals the show.

Lower crust

Feel your arteries harden with every bite of the heavy "Kentucky hot brown" sandwich (turkey, grilled tomatoes, Swiss, bacon and cream gravy). Salade Niçoise features sloppily cut pan-seared tuna that tastes of the griddle; penne ala vodka bores in three forkfuls.

Bottom line

The introduction of several prix-fixe options amps up the allure of an intriguing work in progress.