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CRANES ON THE BRAIN

Small flaws not enough to deter the many fans of this Asian-infused café

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Many restaurants have patios. Few have fantastical secret gardens. It wasn't until my third visit to Flying Cranes, a smallish storefront café on Larchmere Boulevard, that I discovered this hush-hush hideaway concealed behind the building.

After taking our dinner order, the staffer asked if we planned on dining inside or out. We followed his gaze outside the front door, around the corner and down a slender path. "Who knew?" we asked one another, gazing at the lush oasis that unfolded before our eyes.

Interspersed among the trailing vines and sweet-smelling lilies, alongside the prodigious vegetable patch and elegant Japanese maple, is a higgledy-piggledy collection of tacky and uncomfortable patio furniture. As is the case with many experiences at Flying Cranes, an initial burst of glee is tempered by the sharp elbows of reality. But there is so much to like about this casual Asian-infused café that the occasional hiccup and headache is shrugged off as a cost of doing business. Run on a shoestring by a husband-and-wife team, the pinch points are exposed for all to see. The occasional slow service, the improperly assembled order, the tepid soup — none of these things appear to shoo away the loyal customer base. I guess I fall into that category too, seeing as how I can't seem to stay away from the place.

Diners often bemoan the scarcity of moderately priced eateries that don't specialize in burgers and wings. Flying Cranes, which opened a year and a half ago, attempts to plug that hole by offering cheap, wholesome food. Nothing on the menu climbs above $10, while most settles in the $8 range. Better still, many items include salad and chips.

The eclectic menu reflects the café's multi-cultural owners, Kayoko Irie-Frye and Bill Frye. Miso soup is offered as a starter to a grilled panini. Salads are topped with tofu and crab stick. Sandwiches are stuffed not only with tuna fish and egg salad, but also panko-breaded tilapia and Japanese pork cutlet. It's an odd assemblage of foodstuffs, to be sure, but rare is the occasion when something doesn't hit the spot.

Katsu-don ($10) is a near-perfect one-dish meal (and the item that beckons me back). The popular Japanese lunch arrives in a covered pottery bowl and features breaded pork cutlet and veggies atop steamed rice. When popped, a soft-cooked egg mixes with the slightly sweet sauce to envelop the ingredients in a delicious hug.

For just $8.50, a diner can tuck into a meaty chicken curry, also ladled atop a mound of fluffy white rice. The dark-brown sauce is thicker and less complex than an Indian curry, but no less enjoyable. Like other meals, this one includes a fresh green salad topped with house-made ginger dressing. Add a bowl of perfectly seasoned miso soup ($2) and you've got a healthy, affordable meal.

A thick wedge of mushroom and cheese quiche ($7.50) is on hand for those who prefer something less exotic. The moist and filling savory pie is paired with salad and fruit. Calling anything the "ultimate" will always lead to comparison, and Flying Cranes' Ultimate Grilled Cheese ($7) does fall short of others. But still, the ham, cheese and pesto sammy is grilled, pressed and sufficiently melty in all the right places.

To wash it all down there are fruit smoothies, iced coffee drinks (with whipped cream), and Izze sparkling juices. Desserts, including homemade caramel cheesecake ($3.50), are on prominent display in a glass-fronted cooler. Diners who come for a lazy Sunday brunch can build a meal of soup, toast, fruit and coffee around an omelet, quiche or waffle for a flat fee of $10.

Patience is more than a virtue at the Crane — it is a requirement. Frustration is always lurking around the corner, waiting to turn a pleasant meet-up in the garden into a vexing time-suck. Meals are sometimes slow to arrive, a complication compounded when an item is cold, wrong or just plain missing. Tables inside and out lack salt and pepper, soy and hot sauce, adding unnecessary delay for those who desire them.

And then there are the peculiar bits. Miso soup is served in a graceful wooden bowl alongside sandwiches presented on paper plates. Some items are accompanied by fresh fruit, while others receive a handful of bagged tortilla chips. For no apparent reason, salads are served before some entrees but on the same plate as others.

Am I nitpicking? Well, a little. But given the paucity of unique, affordable and delightful places to eat a quick, healthful meal, this joint truly is a neighborhood asset. It just needs to work on the "quick" part.

dining@clevescene.com

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