You can take the girl out of the restaurant business, but you can’t take the restaurant business out of the girl. Or something like that. In this case, we’re referring to Li Chen, former owner and matriarch of Ming Dynasty, who, three weeks ago, opened Café 88 next to Integral Yoga in the Preston Plaza. And thank goodness! Members of the cult who followed Chen’s delicious vegetarian fare at Ming have been walking around town like zombies without a master. Chen sold Ming about a year ago to the folks who own the Asian Market next door. After ruling Ming’s empire for 20 years and developing one of the best vegetarian menus in town (come on, we know even you carnivores enjoyed the vegetarian sweet and sour meatballs), Chen was ready to retire. And it was a pretty definitive break from the scene—Chen gave Ming’s new owners all the secrets to her beloved menu before she walked out the door.
And then just a few months into the rest of her life, Chen got the itch for the kitchen again. But something much smaller in scale than Ming and with a different menu, obviously. The restaurant gods must have Ms. Chen’s back, because the perfect little spot opened up in the old Maruthi space next to vegetarian hang-out IY.
It seemed like 87 years to Ming Dynasty lovers, but Li Chen, Ming’s former owner, has finally opened a new restaurant, Café 88.
With its 10 or so tables, intimate bar seating along the front window and quaint patio area, the space is the perfect size for Chen’s light fare of dim sum, bento boxes and soup. “It’s more like home cooking,” says Chen. The bento boxes in particular (the Asian version of the brown bag lunch) are “like my mom used to make for me when I was little in Taiwan.” Chen says she wanted to capture that feeling she’d had as a child when she would anxiously open her bento box at school to discover what good things her mom had prepared for her “from the heart.” Each of Café 88’s bento boxes comes with a main attraction, such as Taiwanese-style pork chops for the meat eaters or crispy tofu for the veggies, rice and two vegetable side dishes that Chen makes fresh daily depending on what’s locally available—Chen says about 80 percent of her ingredients are local.
And you can get your grub to go. Chen serves her food in disposable, microwaveable dishes for easy take-out. But then, of course, you’d miss the experience of watching Chen cook for you in Café 88’s cozy open kitchen—just like Mom.
Baker takes a bow
From an update on one cultish maven, we bring you news of another that’s not nearly as positive. No, sadly, Lisa Eslambolchi, owner of Ambrosia Bakery & Deli on Route 151 in Nellysford, is selling her establishment. In its three short years of existence, Ambrosia has developed a loyal following of folks willing to haul ass practically to Wintergreen for Eslambolchi’s famous cakes (she had a home-based bakery business for a few years before opening Ambrosia) and signature salads, spreads and sandwiches with a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean flare. As for why she’s selling? Well, Eslambolchi wouldn’t articulate any specific reason to Restaurantarama other than to say that she’s ready to move on. Restaurantarama did sense some justifiable fatigue in her voice as we suspect being an owner-chef of a dining establishment is one of the most grueling gigs around.
But not to fear, Ambrosia addicts. Like Chen, Eslambolchi tells us she’s committed to finding someone to take over what she started at Ambrosia. As for her next move? Well, also like Chen, we suspect she won’t be able to stay out of the kitchen for long. In fact, the revered baker intimated to us a growing interest in the more nutritional and medicinal aspects of food. Hmm. We say look forward to an interesting new culinary adventure from Eslambolchi in the near future!
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