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

Tasty soups, salads shine at Anastasia’s Café

If Fort Wayne had a “Soup Nazi,” it would be Tom Russell.

But unlike the legendary “Seinfeld” TV character, there is never “NO SOUP FOR YOU!” at Anastasia’s Café, because the ever-smiling Russell is one of the nicest restaurant folk you will ever meet.

He runs the sandwich and coffee shop in The Hollows on Jefferson Boulevard with his wife, Deborah, who started the café in 1994 along with her Cheer Baskets gift shop, which shares the space. The couple was forced out of its original location in the Village at Coventry Shoppes last year when the new Kroger came about, but their new space is nicer than the old.

The former faux street scene/sidewalk décor is gone and replaced with a sleek and modern coffeehouse design. There are still some remnants of the old spot. The most eye-catching feature are some artfully hung pieces of timber that the Russells’ builder brought over from the Coventry shop.

And Tom brought all of his more than 60 soup recipes with him, too.

Even when he has to scramble, he creates something special in a pot. During one visit, his Company Ham and Bean soup was so good I asked about his recipe. He laughed and said he didn’t have enough Boar’s Head ham on hand to make it, so he grabbed a ham hock out of his freezer, cut up some vegetables and used a little chicken stock to make this last-minute masterpiece.

The use of stock separated this soup from the thick, starchy norm. There was just enough ham, a little celery, onion, carrot and tomato, the Navy beans were al dente and the flavor that it – and Tom’s choice of herbs and spices – infused into the stock was magical. I asked if the origin of the name was a play off of a Navy company, but, he just smiled and said, “No, because you serve it to company.”

His vegetable soup was also fit for company.

Potatoes, corn, peas, green beans, onions, carrots, mushrooms and cabbage were bathed in a red, tomato-based broth that was seasoned nicely and brightened with fresh parsley. It was about as tasty as a simple vegetable soup can get.

The most unique soup could be had a variety of ways. Tom’s Cincinnati chili had beans in it unlike the traditional version. It could also be had over spaghetti and with cheese and/or onions. You could also have any version in a cup as well as a bowl.

The chili I had in the cup – five-way style with the cheese and onions over noodles – had that signature cinnamon-spiked flavor a good Cincinnati version should have. It would be a great substitute for fans of Skyline, and Tom said it is offered pretty regularly.

It isn’t all about soup at Anastasia’s.

The Northern Italian Turkey Salad is one of my favorites. Julienne strips of smoked breast meat are combined with onions, red peppers and fresh parsley and dressed with an olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing. I suggest getting it as part of the salad sampler, which features it and Anastasia’s other two gourmet salads: Chicken Waldorf and Sicilian Pasta.

The pasta is good, with rotini pasta, carrots, black olives and peppers in a creamy dressing, but not as good as the Waldorf, which has chunks of tender chicken breast, pineapples, celery, apples, grapes, Mandarin oranges and walnuts in a sweet poppyseed dressing. The fruit really raises it above any regular chicken salad.

The Garden Green Salad also won favor with its mixed greens, big slices of ripe tomato, cucumbers, bell peppers, red onions and sprouts. It wasn’t as special as the soups or the turkey salad, but was a solid all-around choice.

The Hoosier was my favorite sandwich. Served on a multigrain baguette, it contained the tavern ham, perfectly fried bacon, Swiss cheese and crunchy, fresh sliced cucumbers. Like the Garden Green Salad, it was solid.

I loved the blended summer beverages I had at Anastasia’s, but they were a part of the only real service issue I had there.

A little before 1 p.m., everyone in my family wanted some kind of smoothie. There were two employees working the register counter when I ordered, but as soon as I was done paying, one of those employees decided it was a good time for a break and grabbed a bowl of soup, sat down at a table next to us and texted away for a good 20 minutes. As she texted, the counter was backed up three-deep and my beverages had to wait. They finally arrived as we were halfway through our meals, which Tom got done quickly.

Those smoothies did hit the spot, however. The Bahama Mama – strawberry, banana, peach and rum-flavored syrup – was super thick and would have been perfect on the beach. The Twisted Lemonade – strawberry, banana and lemonade – was just as refreshing.

The ends of my visits to Anastasia’s were almost as good as the beginnings with those soups. There are always fresh cookies available. The chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, sugar and oatmeal raisin are soft and chewy, but the snickerdoodles are the champ. I also loved my slice of cinnamon coffee cake, which was moist, rich and almost buttery with a sugary sweet crumble on top.

Restaurant: Anastasia’s Café

Address: 7121 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 432-1133

Hours: 7 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: Northern Italian Turkey Salad ($4.50 half; $7.99), salad sample ($7.99), Garden Green Salad ($4.50; $6.99), The Hoosier ($4.50; $7.99), soup ($3.99 cup; $4.99 bowl; $6.99 pint; $13.99 quart), cookies ($1.49)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (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. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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