Cafe Navarre a big hit in South Bend

Cafe Navarre in South Bend is a great dining experience.
Posted on Oct. 15, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

Editor's note: Marshall V. King was on vacation last week, so there aren't Quick Bites this week. They'll return next week.

Every so often you come across a restaurant that just gets it right on every front.

That serves great food, has stellar service and makes people happy.

Such restaurants are treasures.

Cafe Navarre is a treasure.

Kurt Janowsky has spent his life in the restaurant business. He started washing dishes as a 13-year-old at a Mishawaka pancake house. He owned The Loft, his first place, when he was 20 and couldn't legally own a liquor license. Since then, he's owned or co-owned the Ice House, The Emporium, Doc Pierce's, Baxter's Food and Spirits and The Matterhorn.

He operates The Matterhorn in Elkhart, which is focused on catering and banquets. He's had the catering contract at the Lerner Theatre in Elkhart since June 2011. But he wanted a place that offered something new.

It started with the building, he said. The former bank, grocery store and Fannie Mae Candy shop across from the College Football Hall of Fame has cool architectural features and great light. Whether you're seated upstairs or downstairs, it's an interesting space.

Janowsky took chef Matthew Jay from the Matterhorn to the new restaurant. Jay is incredibly talented and what's coming out of the kitchen ranges from a wagyu burger at lunch to a braised lamb shank at dinner. They're even doing a souffle for dessert. Not many places offer that dish simply because it's finicky and hard to do well.

Janowsky, 49, is bright and put his years of experience into how he did Cafe Navarre.

He chose South Bend because he knew he'd get Elkhart County diners, as well as South Bend customers and Notre Dame traffic. If he'd done it in Elkhart, the latter two wouldn't have come in the same numbers, he said.

He saw that Bonefish was one of the busiest chain restaurants in the region, so he made sure they featured fresh fish. So far, the restaurant has served 60 different species of fish and they may offer five on any given night. “Matt likes to cook it and he knows how to cook it,” Janowsky said.

Janowsky has the flexibility of being an independent restaurateur and even put forward a six-course vegan meal for a customer on a day's notice. He can change the menu often and feature what's fresh.

With three food operations, I don't know quite how he finds enough hours in a given day, but he's hired good people, he said. “The challenge is finding good leadership at each store. Right now I have excellent leadership,” he said.

He stresses service and every person who works at Cafe Navarre can do whatever it takes to make a customer happy without checking with a manager.

That means a server can make a decision on how to make a customer or an entire table happy.

That's rare in the restaurant business. But it results in excellent service.

On two of our visits, Lee Ressmeyer was our table. He's great. I want to clone him and see his service at other restaurants.

He told me that if I didn't like the Tenderloin Navarre he'd buy it and eat it himself. The filet medallions seared with a great cognac/red wine/green peppercorn/cream sauce were lovely. The tenderloin from Double R Ranch wasn't as tender as some, but it had more flavor and a great consistency. After I cleaned my plate, I smiled at Ressmeyer and told him I needed a box. His recommendation was spot-on.

When he misheard our souffle order and brought a different kind than we ordered, he comped it with an apology and without a question. Service like he offers makes a meal special.

For many, Cafe Navarre is a place for a special outing. Appetizers are $8 to $12. Soups are $5. Salads are $6 or $7 a la carte. Entrees are $19 to $36. But they are worth what you pay. Lunch features sandwiches for $11 or less. (I'm now a fan of the French Onion Gratinee and wagyu burger, which was worth every bit of the $14.98 before tip.) A dinner for two may top $100.

If you can afford to go often, you won't go wrong on this menu. And the place has been busy since opening in January.

The fresh fish is nicely done and, since it's delivered five or six days a week, is truly fresh.

The salads are flavorful, particularly the house salad with pears, candied walnuts, Gorgonzola and a mild but tangy white balsamic vinaigrette.

The wine list is large, the beer list is impressive and the bartenders know their stuff.

South Bend/Mishawaka has other great restaurants, including LaSalle Grill and Corn Dance Tavern. But Cafe Navarre is doing it right. It's not perfect, but it has the right processes to offer great food at fair prices with excellent service in an interesting space. That's no small thing.

I wish it was in Elkhart. Janowsky may just open another restaurant here someday.

“The restaurant scene in Elkhart is better than it's ever been,” he said, adding that he's committed to Elkhart, particularly its downtown.

We can hope. Until then, we can head to Cafe Navarre for great meals. I suppose it's possible to have a disappointing experience there, but it's just so unlikely.

Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at mking@etruth.com, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook.If You Go

What: Cafe Navarre

Where: 101 N. Michigan St., South Bend

Fare: On the web:http://cafenavarre.co 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 Saturday, 4 to 9 Sunday. Bar opens at 4 p.m. daily.

Details: Reservations recommended and can be made online, no smoking, handicapped accessible.

Phone: 574-968-8101

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday for lunch


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