Capitol Coffeehouse has a bounty of excellent entrees and starters

Don't you love it when something exceeds your expectations? For example, you would not expect a Hillsdale coffee shop to double as a Cuban-tinged cafe Ñ and actually succeed. But the Capitol Coffeehouse and Bistro does that one better, acting as a throwback coffeehouse that hosts songwriter circles and jazz singers partial to belting out old standards, as well.

The Capitol Coffeehouse and Bistro is nestled into the inviting, two-story row building just beyond the fork in the road where Capitol and Beaverton-Hillsdale highways intersect. Until recently, the Bertha Station coffee shop occupied the space. Along one wall of the first floor is a row of charming, vintage freezer cases; opposite it is a windowed garage door that opens to a patio sprinkled with tables.

With its peaked ceiling and dark woodwork, the upstairs dining room has a barnlike feel that instantly puts you at ease. An ornate upright piano sits in one corner next to a tiny stage area where musicians perform most nights from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The Capitol Coffeehouse serves pastries, coffee and sandwiches by day, but the real action Ñ both gustatory and cultural Ñ happens after dark. The tidy menu offers an equal number of starters and salads, a half-dozen entrees and a handful of light meals Ñ mostly sandwiches plus a caramelized onion and leek tart. Beverage selections comprise house cocktails, a satisfactory list of reasonably priced wines, a few microbrews and the unanticipated Cuban espresso and cafŽ con leche.

The inexpensive appetizers are true treats. The cheese plate contains four hearty wedges of Spanish cheese, baguette and a few bunches of grapes, and goes for a mere $6.75. It easily could cost double at finer restaurants Ñ though you do forfeit knowledge for that cut-rate price. After repeated requests, our server could not remember the cheese names from the time it took her to ask the chef downstairs and travel up to our table.

In addition to Manchego Ñ the deliciously nutty cheese made from the milk of Manchega sheep Ñ the plate appeared to include the earthy, goat's milk cheese Garrotxa; smooth, fruity Mah—n; and possibly piquant, buttery Zamorano Ñ all extremely agreeable.

Crostini comes spread with just the right amount of olive, caper and garlic tapenade, with a few plump olives on the side for $4.75. The array of enticing salads includes one with grapefruit and orange segments, mint and cucumber drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

Main dishes are homey but well-defined. In Shrimp Limoncello, the potent citron liqueur limoncello, tempered with olive oil and garlic, forms a wonderful sauce for juicy prawns and linguine. Honeyed manzanilla sherry is the sweet to chopped olives' and capers' sour in a fine snapper sautŽ that is paired with jasmine rice.

Two meat dishes deliver Cuban comfort. Picadillo, another sweet-and-savory dish, is a mix of ground chuck, peppers, raisins, capers and olives that you'll be glad to discover. Cuban Roasted Pork features a large slab of marinated pork loin coupled with black beans, rice and French green beans Ñ nothing fancy, just good execution and flavor.

So far, the live acoustic acts, not the ambitious menu, draw the biggest crowds at Capitol Coffeehouse. After 8 p.m., when the music gets going, customers seeking drinks and dessert fill the dining room. But you get the feeling that once these parties start nibbling on Capitol's starters and entrees and telling their friends about it, word will travel fast about the satisfying food that is such a surprising, but wholly welcome, find.

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