TNT Diner

Here’s a new ladies-who-lunch cafe in Tacoma where it’s safe to take your grandma, best friend, picky sister-in-law ...

A chicken marsala pie from Tibbitts@FernHill.
A chicken marsala pie from Tibbitts@FernHill. skidd@thenewstribune.com

Chef-owner Shawn Tibbitts has two criteria for the succinct menu at his newly opened Fern Hill cafe. Every dish must be made from scratch, and it has to be healthy.

Perusing the menu at Tibbitts@FernHill, it’s easy to see his vision. Salads and lettuce wraps carry lower caloric loads. Savory pies are made from scratch and are accompanied by fresh fruit. There is no deep fryer in the restaurant. No canned soda, either. Soups, glazes, dressings and even bread sticks that start every meal are handmade by Tibbitts, who opened his cafe Feb. 25. Vegetables and fruit get top billing on most of the dishes on his short menu of 13 items.

Tibbitts has been a cook here for more than 20 years, and most recently was Ben Herreid’s right-hand-kitchen man at Arista, the fresh pasta restaurant in downtown Puyallup.

Tibbitts@FernHill is scrunched into one of those neat old brick buildings in the Fern Hill neighborhood, a few blocks off South 84th and Pacific Avenue. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it neighborhood with a used book store, nail salon and another excellent lunch destination one building over, Little Jerry’s. The neighborhood is also a return home for Tibbitts. He attended Fern Hill Elementary and Baker Middle School.

Tibbitts wanted to start small, eschewing bigger spaces with bigger rents in order to operate something he could maintain. “This has to be manageable. It’s just me and two servers,” he said.

Here’s a first-bite look at the cafe. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service in a restaurant’s first month.

The space: A light, airy cafe with homestyle touches. A collection of rolling pins hangs in the front window, and the dining room is festooned with antiques and curiosities. The front counter is fashioned from old barrels with a big wooden plank plopped on top. The dining room is tiny, with cushy seating for 24. It’s the kind of place to take your grandma, best friend or picky sister-in-law.

The menu: This is ladies-who-lunch fare at its finest. The 13-item menu includes a pea salad with a hominy Dijon dressing and cheddar, onions and candied parsnips served in a cantaloupe bowl ($11); a d’anjou pear champagne salad with chicken and gorgonzola ($12) and avocado lime salad with bacon, roasted squash and gorgonzola ($13). Lettuce wraps include vegetarian-friendly cucumber-ginger with pears, pineapple and cilantro ($9), and cashew-pineapple with crispy wontons and cabbage ($11).

The pies: The menu includes two pies, the offspring of quiche and pot pies. A flaky crust broke to smoked salmon suspended in a light, savory egg custard, with candied parsnips and capers. The other, a chicken marsala, carried the same soft custard filling with cubed chicken and potatoes, roasted red peppers and a hint of marsala wine. Both plated with fresh fruit and $13 each.

Also try: Sweet-and-savory lettuce wrap with chicken ($11). The plate was drizzled with honey and balsamic. Fresh, snappy lettuce leaves were stacked with chicken salad, dressed lightly in mayo, with chopped chicken breast, cabbage, walnuts and cilantro. Note: This was more of an assembled salad plate and less of a do-it-yourself traditional lettuce wrap built from an array of ingredients.

Restrictions: Several items are vegetarian- friendly and gluten-free.

It’s the small things: Fresh herbs decorated plates. A bowl of fresh fruit and spindly fennel-crusted breadsticks started the meal, free of charge. Cucumber or lemon water is offered. Coffee beans are from Dillanos. Menus change seasonally.

Tibbits@Fernhill

Where: 8237 S. Park Ave., Tacoma; 253-327-1334; facebook.com/TibbittsatFernHill.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

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