Café Navarre: The Grande Dame of Notre Dame

Our granddaughter just graduated from college, and the four years passed like lightning.

The proud grandparents that Joanne and I are, there was never a debate about attending her graduation. So it was on an early Friday morning a couple of weeks ago that we headed to South Bend, Indiana and the campus of Notre Dame University for the big event. In tow: our daughter, her 11-year-old daughter, and “sidekick” / chauffeur, Tim.

Notre Dame may be one of the most stunningly beautiful campuses in the nation. If I were making a film about college life, and I called Central Casting in Hollywood for filming locations, this would be the place.

South Bend is another story. Like so many midwestern cities, it has been through some rough times, particularly with the loss of auto industry jobs. It’s not that it’s depressed or unsafe. It just doesn’t have the vitality it must have had at one time. Notre Dame is plopped down right in the center of town. I guess that the contrast makes the university all the more stunning.

But there are some “green shoots.” The “South Bend River Lights” is a new public art installation that turns the St. Joseph River, which runs through downtown South Bend, into a “canvas of living art.” (Book a river-facing room at the perfectly nice Doubletree Hotel and you’ll see the show every night).

And the restaurant CAFÉ NAVARRE is splendid.

Joanne and I and our family have dined there three or four times during our granddaughter’s college years and we have found it to be uniformly very, very good. Without a doubt, it is the go-to place in South Bend.

The restaurant is located right downtown on a corner in a former bank building with 30 ft. ceilings. Until the restaurant came along, the building’s main claim to fame was getting robbed by John Dillinger in 1934. His take was $28,800.

Café Navarre’s chef and owner is Kurt Jankowsky. I’ve never met him, but he’s obviously an outstanding culinary talent. I read that a few years back he stood-up to a group of protestors angry about his inclusion of foie gras on the menu. News reports say that he did not back down to the protesters and continued to serve the rich, silky, buttery, decadent and delicious appetizer (….which was NOT on the menu during our last visit).

There were fourteen of us celebrating on Saturday night, so we sampled a ton of stuff.

The signature appetizer of Wild Mushroom Soup with toasted hazelnuts, snipped chives and sherry was a huge hit, and surprisingly affordable at $8. The Smoked Pork Belly with Apple Crisps at $13 was also a hit, as were the Korean Style Steamed Mussels (10). To celebrate the arrival of spring, the menu included a Sweet Pea Risotto with three plump seared sea scallops for ($20).

For mains, our 11-year-old did substantial damage to her generous serving of Baked Bolognese Rigatoni. The Grilled Salmon was beautifully plated with spring snap peas, asparagus and scallions. Joanne, of course, had seafood, and perhaps the best dish of the evening: Lobster Pot Pie with brandied-lobster cream, carrots, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes, capped with a crispy and buttery cap of puff pastry. A perfect counterpoint on the plate was a small frisée salad with truffle vinaigrette.

Our group had their fair share of steaks….Rib-Eyes, Filets and a rare and deliciously fatty (as it should be) Prime Rib. Another standout for meat lovers: The Pork Osso Bucco ($30) with mole & mezcal braised Berkshire pork shank, grilled tomatillo sauce, sweet corn & cactus salad, topped with queso fresco. This ain’t Canyon Ranch, folk.

If there was a main dish that challenged Joanne’s Lobster Pot Pie and the Osso Bucco, it was my Brick Chicken: a semi-boneless hard brick-seared “Poulet Rouge” heritage chicken, with loads of garlic. Maybe I fell for it because I so fondly remembered the 40-cloves-of-garlic version we served at Figlio. God, I was STUPID to close that place.

Oh well.

Desserts? All good, particularly the Pistachio-Crusted Chocolate Truffles. Oh yeah, the Blueberry Shortcake, too.

If you find yourself in South Bend, do dine at CAFÉ NAVARRE.

I don’t know if Joanne and I will get back to the city. It’s probably unlikely that our remaining younger grandkids will attend Notre Dame. But I’m damn glad we had these past four years, and I couldn’t be more proud of our granddaughter for not just getting into such a great school, but excelling there.



2 thoughts on “Café Navarre: The Grande Dame of Notre Dame

  • June 7, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    Great trip and experience. I would have left the “chauffeur” behind in Mishawaka…

  • July 21, 2020 at 10:25 am

    Hi! I’m a British Single Mom living in Chicago, I found your article to be soooo Usefull!

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