A pleasant lunch in the Capitol Cafe, until . . .

Fries, onion rings, and burgers are staples of Harrisburgs health-code-beleaguered Capitol Cafe. The service area yesterday was all smiling staff and squeaky-clean displays.
Fries, onion rings, and burgers are staples of Harrisburgs health-code-beleaguered Capitol Cafe. The service area yesterday was all smiling staff and squeaky-clean displays.
Posted: January 29, 2010

HARRISBURG - Certainly, there would be no "mice-and-beans" or "rat-atouille" lunch specials on the menu.

But with a track record of dismal health inspections like the one that Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. has racked up lately at the Capitol Cafe in the state capital, the punch lines were bound to come.

"So, we going to the poop-ateria?" said James Roxbury, a cafeteria regular who runs an online news service, as he welcomed me to lunch yesterday. With a buildup like that, how could I say no?

Aramark's shockingly persistent failure to pass basic health inspections in the airy atrium dining facility, where 1,500 politicos, state employees, and tourists eat each day, has been a magnet for all the wrong kinds of headlines.

The cafeteria was closed for two weeks in December after 54 health-code violations, including a droppings-laden rodent infestation. Then it failed a surprise inspection Monday at the very moment Aramark executives were testifying before the joint House State Government and Agriculture Committee with apologies and vows of corrective action.

The events have consumed cafeteria cognoscenti like Roxbury, who frequents the cafe daily to eat and upload video to his Roxbury News Service.

"Of course, there were at least 70 subpoenas being served around the Capitol yesterday for Bonusgate. But this is all anyone wants to talk about – Rodentgate."

Among the most unsavory details of Monday's health inspection by the state Department of Agriculture were a hairnet in the sink, hot dogs that weren't hot enough, and numerous mouse droppings, including one inside a large bowl at the kitchen mixer.

Note to self: Avoid the chocolate-chip muffins.

But if I was expecting to discover the Ptomaine Palace on the Susquehanna, I was sorely disappointed by first impressions.

The service area was all smiling staff and squeaky-clean displays. The romaine lettuce leaves were perfectly stacked on the salad bar, and the pickles were lined up straight. A cornucopia of produce bobbed like colorful confetti atop the "Farm Fresh Vegetable" soup. And hairnets, of course, were cinching the brows of every food handler and tie-wearing manager, including one who was conspicuously taking an instant temperature reading on a chicken panini.

"Whew, that's hot!" he said, looking up to mug for the crowd as if he were on the Food Network.

It certainly was hot, so much so that the sandwich was roasted to a parchingly dry crisp. But it's not as if I expected the Capitol Cafe buffet to suddenly be transformed into brunch at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.

Global mega-feeder Aramark has long set my standard for soulless institutional cookery, and the cafe generally lived up to that. The tortellini alfredo was gloppy. The meatballs were nice and tender, but they were slathered in sweet industrial tomato sauce. The warm employees, though, couldn't have been more outgoing.

Despite the staff's efforts yesterday, the early lunch crowd was noticeably light.

"I've never seen it empty like this," said Roxbury, pointing out the steady flow of diners toting brought-from-home brown bags. All of the atrium's lush palm trees and a trickling fountain, he noted wistfully, had been ripped out and their spaces sealed with metal covers in the crusade to rid the dining room of its rodent havens.

"It was very green and private here once," he said. "But nothing living has survived."

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), usually a tuna-sandwich devotee, was keeping the sparse dining room lively while on lunch break with colleagues from a job summit in the room next door. He was enthusiastic about both his lunch (a river of creamy dressing flecked with a little salad and cheese) and his endorsement of the cafe as a solid place to eat: "Yes! Yes! Yes to all that!"

Roxbury's crowd is less forgiving: "A lot of people I know won't eat here again until Aramark is gone."

As for my lunch, it wasn't all bad. I found some finger-size pepperoni-and-pesto rollups that could be my downfall if I were a Capitol regular. The German chocolate cake was decent, too.

But the lunch mood was undeniably a little jumpy. I practically leaped from my chair when something dark and shiny suddenly landed on my thigh. It was just an errant piece of cheesesteak.

Relieved, I turned back to the sandwich with a chuckle, then leaned in to take another bite. And that was when I saw it: an inch-long black hair curling up from under the squishy roll.

It was not mine. It was definitely not the grill guy's, either; the charming fellow's close-cropped 'do didn't match. So . . . whose hair was lurking on my cheesesteak in the Capitol Cafe?

I'll leave that for the Department of Agriculture's health inspectors to answer on their next visit.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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