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Anastasia’s Café
**** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Anastasia’s offerings a true gift

The place was so good, it surprised me.

There are a lot of places that claim to be restaurants by serving sandwiches and soups, but what I discover is that they are really just struggling coffeehouses or gift stores trying something new to boost business. And I often find their attempts at being restaurants mediocre at best.

Anastasia’s Café is in a gift store, Cheer Baskets in the Village at Coventry Shoppes, and it was, indeed, started in 1994 by owner Deborah Russell as a way to expand business. But Deborah and her husband, Tom, who retired from Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2004 to work full time at the café, are doing things right at their restaurant. And their dedication to fresh ingredients and the care they put into the food is evident in every bite.

The menu consists of sandwiches served on freshly baked baguettes – crusty French, tangy sourdough or whole grain – or rustic wheatberry bread, soups and salads. Freshly baked cookies, an array of other homemade desserts, coffeehouse fare including blended smoothies and phosphate drinks are also available.

Tom, who used to head to the café right from school to make the next day’s soups, has sort of commandeered the kitchen now. He has 54 varieties of soups he rotates through, and the ones I had were great.

The lentil was straightforward with bits of carrot and chunks of tomato, but the still al dente legumes gave it a wonderful texture. The chicken gumbo also was right from the book with rice, tomato, peppers, pulled pieces of light and dark chicken and a ton of okra in a rich brown broth. It was perfectly seasoned to have a little peppery spice while being mild enough to suit any taste.

The most interesting soup was the Austrian green bean, which is Deborah’s favorite. It was basically green bean casserole meets soup, with a surprisingly light cream base, black mushrooms, barley and french fried onions in the base and on top. Anyone who likes the Thanksgiving favorite will love this soup. The Mayan corn chowder – yes, there are other corn chowders in Tom’s list of 54 – was wonderfully herbaceous thanks to the addition of coriander to the blend of corn, potato, celery, onion, red pepper and bacon.

The salads were even better. Anastasia’s offers a salad sampler, which includes the menu staples chicken Waldorf, Sicilian pasta and Northern Italian turkey.

The turkey salad was not only the best thing I ate at Anastasia’s, it was probably the most unique and impressive turkey salad I have ever eaten. Julienne strips of succulent Boar’s Head smoked turkey were tossed with zesty red onion, sweet, smoky roasted red peppers and fresh parsley in a red wine vinegar dressing. The turkey was flavorful and the bite of the vinegar sort of cleansed the palate to allow the flavor of the parsley and peppers to shine.

Pineapple, apple and mandarin oranges lifted the somewhat-dry chicken in the Waldorf salad, and the fresh, crunchy green peppers in the pasta salad did the same. They were both fine salads, but the turkey was easily the star.

I tried the curried grilled chicken salad as a wrap. Surprisingly juicy chunks of grilled chicken were tossed in a house-made, bright yellow curry dressing and nestled in a whole-wheat tortilla with crisp greens, red onion, diced tomato and mandarin oranges. The sweetness of the orange perfectly balanced the spiciness of the curry, which, like the gumbo, was strong enough to give it zip but still plenty mild for timid palates.

I suggest upgrading to potato salad as a side with the sandwiches. I also loved the Café Filet sandwich, which had some of the most moist, most tender sliced roast beef I have had in a while on a French baguette with tomato, cucumber and horseradish sauce.

The emphasis on freshness even carried over to dessert with Deborah’s blueberry pie. The plump, juicy berries in this pie popped with each bite. The thick crust carried some weight and mixed with the macerated berries to make this pie sort of cobbler-esque.

The cookies were also fantastic – crunchy but still chewy – with the sugar-topped peanut butter and Chocolate Wow, a chocolate cookie packed with chips and pecans, being the best.

The service was also fantastic at Anastasia’s. Even though it’s the kind of place where you order at the counter before sitting, Tom, Deborah and their staff were attentive to every whim after my party was seated. And the place has a comfortable, attractive faux streetside atmosphere among the baskets and other gift offerings, with soda shop tables and wicker-backed chairs arranged under an awning jutting from the storefront mural on the wall.

It may say Cheer Baskets on the big sign out front, but don’t ignore the little one on the sidewalk that tells you Anastasia’s is here, too.

Because the food I had sure did not deserve second billing.

Restaurant: Anastasia’s Café

Address: 5723 Coventry Lane

Phone: 432-1133

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Soup ($4.99 bowl; $3.50 cup), salad sampler ($7.50), Hoosier and Café Filet sandwiches ($7.50 whole, $3.99 half), grilled chicken wrap ($7.50), cookies ($1.29)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the website, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.