Penne On Fire

In response to my critique of Angel’s Restaurant, reader “Phil” recommended Piece a Cake in downtown Charlottetown.

I’ve had varied experiences with Piece a Cake.

When it was first opened by foodtrapraneur Bruce MacNaughton, it was based on the “marché” concept pioneered in North America by Mövenpick. Here’s how Mövenpick describes this:

The key to the MARCHÉ concept is our collection of market tables or stations where daily specials are prepared and cooked to order à la minute.

At Piece a Cake in its original incarnation, you were seated at your table, and given a chit to take with you to the salad station, the mains station, the dessert station, and so on. At each station, your chit was stamped with what you ordered, and when you checked out, everything was totalled up.

I remember discussing this at the time with Kier Kenny, no stanger to Island foodservice. Kier’s take was simple: Islanders want to be served at their table when they go out to eat.

And he was right. It wasn’t long before Piece a Cake reconfigured itself into a more traditional “waiters and waitresses” restaurant.

In the honeymoon period when the restaurant first opened, and things hadn’t shaken out yet, there were some interesting aspects to Piece a Cake beyond the self-service: they served an excellent selection of non-alcoholic drinks, like Seaman’s Ginger Brew, in tall flutey glasses. There were carafes of crayons at each table, and the tableclothes were covered with kraft paper, so it was easy to sketch, doodle, and play tic-tac-toe. The music was good. The chefs were animated.

It wouldn’t be proper to say that Piece a Cake has settled into mediocrity since, as all that’s really happened is that the owners have figured out what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, sometimes “what works” is the same as what works elsewhere, and that’s why so many restaurants are so alike, both in style and food.

All that said, I had a very good meal at Piece a Cake last night. Our babysitter-from-heaven unable to come Saturday, Catherine and I gathered for an unusual Friday night away from Oliver. We had a reservation for 7:00 p.m. When we arrived, our waitress checked a list, and wordlessly seated us at an excellent table. Feeling like Big Daddy Rukavina, I marvelled at her wordless recognition, only to find, when seated, that our waitress was Brenda Whiteaway, who knows Catherine well, and me a little.

Slightly deflated (although who wants to walk around town being known as “Big Daddy Rukavina,” anyway?), we settled into Brenda’s truly excellent service.

We ordered a flagon of the red house wine to start, which was served in a Daphne Large vessel (Brenda’s comment: “they’re beautiful, but we keep breaking them!”). For an appetizer, we had the spicy crab cakes: they were tasty and well-prepared, but could have been spicier. This was all underlaid by a carpet of very tasty house bread, which we finished off in short order.

My main course was the Penne on Fire. I’d seen this on the menu before, but had never ordered it, fearful that the “on fire” would prove to suffer from the same tepid approach to spicing that most purportedly “hot and spicy” Island cooking does. I needn’t have worried: the Penne on Fire was truly inspired, and sizzling melange of penne, zucchini, onions and a bona fide fire-filled red sauce. It was the kind of meal that makes you sparkle into a delightful haze when it’s done, happy to be alive.

I’m sorry to report that Catherine’s experience was less positive. She ordered the 6 oz. steak medium-rare, and when it arrived Brenda cautioned that it appeared to her to be rather more cooked than medium-rare. She was right: it was very, very well done. She quickly returned it to the kitchen, and when a new steak returned 5 minutes later, it was only slightly less well done. By this time, however, Catherine was ravenous, and I was done my Penne on Fire (ravenous myself, I refused Brenda’s kind offer to return my entree to the kitchen to be kept warm, sacrificing chivalry points for satiation). So she put up with the “medium well” steak, and polished it off in short order. Brenda was appropriately apologetic for all of this, and comped us the wine to compensate.

For dessert we were offered a field trip to the dessert case, which, with its echos of the Piece a Cake of old, we eagerly accepted. Catherine had a rum and pineapple cake, and I had a white chocolate cheesecake. Both were well-prepared, but neither was dreamy. I ordered a cup of tea, which was served boiling hot in a complete tea service and was excellent (making Piece a Cake one of the two or three places in Charlottetown one can get a good cup of tea, when judged using the Karen Mair benchmark).

Despite the steak debacle, we left feeling well-fed and well-served, and at $54 for the meal, it didn’t feel like an extravagent night out.

So here’s a vote for Piece a Cake as a good place for a meal in Charlottetown. Things are looking up.