Steve Himelfarb made his name in New Orleans as a man on the move. For years, he earned a living selling slices of homemade cake door-to-door, an enterprise that took him all over town. Not long after I first heard about him from friends downtown, the receptionist at the office tower where I then worked in Metairie began heralding his welcome.
"The cake man's here, everybody," she'd bray over the intercom. "Come get you some cake!"
My Magazine Street barber sang his praises, and I heard effusive reports from friends in the Riverbend and a shopkeeper in the French Quarter. While some dieters may have considered restraining orders, most people seemed enamored with the friendly, mellow gentleman who brought midday slices of red velvet, German chocolate and coconut cake to their doorsteps and cubicles. It didn't hurt that his cakes were consistently moist, dense and vividly fresh.
Eventually the wandering cake man opened a small bake shop and cafe in the French Quarter, but when the levees failed less than a year later, he found himself back on the road for a while. Two years ago he emerged again, and with business partner and chef Allison Gorlin he opened the New Orleans Cake Cafe in the former location of La Spiga Bakery.
From this seasoned, well-equipped baking kitchen, they turn out cakes, a small selection of sweet and savory items for the bakery case and the breads and biscuits that are the foundation of the breakfast and lunch menus. If for nothing else, this place deserves a merit badge for producing a serious bagel, with the crisp, shell-like exterior and soft but chewy body that is the pride of big bagel towns but has proven elusive in New Orleans.
Lots of handmade and garden-fresh touches go into the sandwiches, salads and daily specials, though that doesn't always guarantee the most exciting meal. A heavier hand with basic seasonings and some kind of sauce would have lifted the novel but plain grilled tuna and eggs plate, for instance.
Still, Cake Cafe has made an interesting specialty of serving seafood for breakfast, and not just the smoked salmon with all the accompaniments that go so well with bagels. There's the common shrimp and grits, but also fried tilapia with eggs and grits. Crab has been all over the specials menu lately, folded into omelets or starring in a sandwich with bacon, spinach and Brie on crusty house ciabatta, which I hope finds a place on the regular menu. If so, it would have to duel with the great Reuben and its dense rye, coarse sauerkraut and thick planks of corned beef, all made in house.
Cake Cafe is comfortably nestled in the Marigny, and it's nice to sit at one of its sidewalk tables with a coffee and breakfast sandwich. Inside, the open, casual dining room exudes the dangerously tempting smell of fresh baked goods. I know I can't resist the aromatic argument and I always leave with something for later, whether it's the dark chocolate and cherry strudel or a cupcake version of the red velvet cake that helped build Himelfarb's rep back in his itinerant days.