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February 27, 2005

Joy America Cafe: Alice In Wonderland

Players: Samantha and moi

Act I: Finding the right Rabbit Hole

So Sam is in Baltimore visiting a friend and wants to do lunch on Saturday. I blithely agree, not realizing how much of a pain it is trying to find a good restaurant in B'more that is open for lunch on Saturday. So, I try my site of first resort: opentable and they only have a few restaurants that are available, most of which didn't seem too attractive. I would have chosen to go to the Black Olive, but that's a place that you go to for dinner in order to get the full impact. All my favorites (Saffron, Brass Elephant, Tio Pepe, etc.) were closed. Grrr. So, after looking around some more, I discovered Joy America Cafe which is in the American Visionary Art Museum. Never having been to AVAM, and not having a clue as to what "Visionary Art" was, I was intrigued. I tried finding reviews of Joy America Cafe on the web, but that proved to be as elusive as trying to discover what visionary art meant. There were a handful of short, non-insightful reviews (and while this review may be non-insightful, it won't be short. That I promise!) on AOL CityGuide, Frommers and the like, but nothing substantive. However, the few morsels of information that were present were interesting enough for me to decide on Joy for lunch (sic). Reservations , of course, were made through Opentable.

Act II: Wonderland

Getting to the museum is easy. It's located in Federal Hill on Key Highway and is close enough to walk to from the Baltimore Science Museum and that part of the Inner Harbor. If you are coming from the Inner Harbor, you will see an old brick building with the museum name written on it. If you turn into the street just in front of the museum, there is a decent amount of metered parking. When we got there at around noon, there wee still about a dozen spots left. However, when we left at 3pm, I don't think there was a single open parking space there.

The museum, at first glance, seems kitschy. The front facade is a mosaic of blue glass, which is attractive but makes you wonder what the inside will be like. When looking at the works inside, it was hard to characterize what visionary art meant. We decided that it might be folk art with a modern twist to it. The variety of art in there is amazing. I think the most attractive quality of the museum and it's exhibits is the approachability and touchability of the pieces. A sense of delight descends upon you while going around the museum -- from the amusing robots made of recycled materials to the sequin-encrusted bed and mermaids -- the whole museum elicits a sensawunda.

The Joy America Cafe itself is located on the third floor of the museum. Just tell the nice folks over at the front desk that you are eating at the Cafe and they will provide you with a personal escort right to it.

Act III: A Mad Tea Party

The restaurant itself seems moderately sized. As you enter, the left side is full of tables and the right right is more of a bar area. The decor seems to be minimalist modern with a twist. At the very least, it was pleasant and went tolerably well with the museum theme. The dining area has a large arced window that has a view of the inner harbor. I'm told that it looks even better at night. When we got there, there was virtually no one in the restaurant, and I kinda felt foolish for making reservations. However, by the time 1pm rolled around, the place was full. The crowd frequently the place leaned towards the middle-aged range, and was very obviously contained a representative sample from the more, umm, art-aware citizenry.

We got seated immediately and got a table that was close to the view of the inner harbor (though it would be hard to get a table that didn't have some part of the view). Our server was friendly and very helpful (as well as being attractive and having an accent that was music to my ears). The menus were quirky and amusing. Both of us had menus with different covers. The inside of the menu consisted of artistically torn pieces of paper taped with various decorative stickers to sturdy paper backing. Overall, a very nice effect.

The menu items themselves showed strong evidence of southwestern and latin influences. For the most part, the dishes were not vegetarian, but there were at least a couple of appetizers and entrees that were vegetarian (and they try to be vegan-friendly in those dishes according to our server). Admittedly, seafood is a highlight of the menu.

Act IV: Eat me, Drink Me

We started off with a couple of drinks: the Chocolate Rasberry and the Dark & Stormy. The former is one of the better chocolate cocktails I've ever had -- mixed perfectly so that all the flavors blended together. The latter was a strong mixture of rum and ginger beer (real ginger beer). They also had the standard mojito and caiprinha on the menu along with a few other cocktails. The bar, I'm sure, could make anything that you wanted.

We couldn't quite decide what we wanted since pretty much everything looked good. We decided to start off with an appetizers and finally settled on the Empanaditas. The stuffing in the empanaditas had just been changed from a vegan-friendly mix of various vegetables to a mixture of ham, shrimp and rice. This was served on a sauce of jalapenos and rice. The empanaditas were good, and tasted even better with the sauce. Our server mentioned that the sauce was made out of rice instead of cream or other dairy products to keep it vegan. Of course, with the new stuffing, they kept the sauce the same because so many people liked it.

Of course, now that we had our appetizer, we had to decide on the rest of the meal. In what is becoming a trend for me, we decided on finishing off with more appetizers. We ordered a ceviche and a chalupa. The ceviche was a tuna and shrimp ceviche with lime, habaneros and garlic. It was absolutely delicious. The chalupa was a crispy flatbread with potatoes, chorizo sausage, and roasted garlic. It tasted good and was very filling (which our server had warned us it would be). At this point, we decided not to order anything more since we wanted to have dessert. There were several more dishes I wanted to try: the black bean soup, another ceviche, some of their salads, their crab cake entree and their tuna entree. All those sounded good, and I guess that's going to have to wait for another trip to Joy America.

The dessert menu looked good enough to be the whole meal. We ended up ordering the "Seven Tastes of Chocolate" and "Tres Leches de Joy". The former being seven different and great chocolate items, and the latter being a version of the standard Tres leches, with coconut flan, a creme brulee and a caramel flan (I think). Both of the desserts were very good. If I did have more of an appetite, I would have tried the chocolate cherry empanadas, too.

Act V: Conclusion

I loved the Cafe. The food was good, the view wonderful and the service great. They also seem to have a good bartender and some awesome desserts. It helps that the cafe is inside the museum, both from a stylistic perspective as well as an contextual one.

Ratings

Joy America Cafe Review
Service Friendly, Quick, and Helpful
Decor Modern minimalist with a twist
Food Delicious & Intriguing nouveau southwestern

February 04, 2005

Corduroy: Just like the fabric

Players: Rekha and moi

Pre-prandial

The last-minute decision was to go to Corduroy for dinner. Rekha had initially suggested the Willard for dinner, and we eventually decided on Corduroy. So, we decided to instead go to Indebleu and the Willard for drinks.

The Willard was what I expected it to be...old world with a well-dressed crowd. It seemed like a nice place to have a drink -- friendly, quick service and a nice, quite decor. Rekha liked it rather more than I did. We had a drink each and tons of the bar nuts before heading for Indebleu. All the museum'ing had made us hungry (the reason for the outing was to see an exhibit by Cai Guo-Qiang at the Hirshhorn)

At Indebleu, we did the usual: drinks and dessert. This time for a dessert, we had the "Choco Sutra", which is a concoction of several different chocolates (white chocolate waffle, flourless chocolate cake and a dark chocolate ribbon around it) with brandied cherries over a pomegranate glaze. It sounded great, looked cool and tasted pretty decent. I infinitely preferred the profiteroles and hot chocolate dessert over this one. My big problem with this one was that there was no subtlety in the dessert. The only interesting part was the pomegranate glaze and that was mildly overdone.

Having sated ourselves with drinks and dessert, we proceeded to waddle on over to Corduroy

Initial Impressions

Corduroy is located on the second floor of the Four Points Sheraton at 12th and K. By the time we walked over to it, it was sleeting/snowing, for which neither of us was prepared, and we were just happy to reach any safe harbor at that point. Even though there is a big sign on the hotel for Corduroy, you could easily miss it if you were looking for a restaurant at street level.

Once you walk up to the second floor (or take the elevator) and look around, you realize that Corduroy still has a very ordinary presence: located next to the fitness center, it almost looks like a hotel cafe or dining room. To extend that impression even more, the rest rooms for Corduroy are located outside the restaurant and past the fitness center.

Once you enter Corduroy, it continues to be subdued and quiet. However, it does something magical and presents more of a warm, comfortable atmosphere than one would expect. The restaurant is done in dark wood, mirrors and shades of brown, with occasional nondescript artwork on the walls. One of the things I tend to dislike in restaurants is mirrors on the walls. If you are seated facing the wall (and hence the mirror), you usually can see everything that is happening behind you as well as yourself. This tends to be distracting to me (and no, not because I'm narcissistic and keep staring at myself). If I happen to be seated with my back to the wall, I have to deal with my companion(s) being distracted. However, Corduroy dealt with this problem well, by having only half-length mirrors and hanging them at such an angle that I could only see people in the immediate vicinity behind me -- and I couldn't see myself. It was perfect, since I was never surprised by waiters showing up behind me, and yet I didn't have to deal with what was happening in the rest of the restaurant.

The name of the restaurant, however, continued to confuse. About the only genuflection towards the name that we saw was in the menus, which were covered in corduroy. A nice touch, but I'm sure it felt a little lonely being the only touch of corduroy decor. Not that I want to see a restaurant swathed in corduroy.

Once in, we were immediately seated at a table (me facing the mirrored wall, of course) and thereupon all inspection of decor ceased, and the perusal of the menu began.

Repast

The first thing you notice about Corduroy's menu is its simplicity. The focus is all on the main ingredient, whether it be salmon, or cheese. It was very evident that the chef wanted to highlight a central ingredient rather than create a fusion of tastes. This seemed inline with Corduroy's no-frills approach to decor. We settled on the "Buffalo mozzarella porcupine" as the appetizer, though there were a couple of other tempting starters. For the entrees, there was not much competition for us. We both ordered the fish dishes: tuna for me and salmon for Rekha. I was briefly seduced by the wagyu beef dish but decided to stick with the fish.

The appetizer arrived relatively quickly. As the name hints at, the dish is a ball of mozzarella in a shell of fried phyllo dough that has been "julienned", resembling a porcupine. The mozzarella is accompanied by a tart tomato sauce and a basil sauce, which combined well with the cheese.

The main courses arrived minutes after we finished the appetizer. I had ordered a seared rare tuna over sushi rice and a sesame vinaigrette. It tasted very good, in part due to the well-sized chunk of rare tuna at the center of it all. The sushi rice and vinaigrette added a nice touch, almost like sushi but with a twist. I enjoyed it a lot, though the portion was a mite generous for me. The salmon came with wild mushrooms and had a very homogeneous flavor to it. It tasted pretty good, but wasn't remarkable in any way.

As usual, even though I was stuffed by this point, we couldn't resist dessert. Well, I couldn't resist dessert. Rekha decide to opt out. I ordered the pistachio bread pudding. It turned out to be a a square of cake-like pudding with layers of pistachio pate sanwiched inbetween. The overall taste was very good, with the nuttiness of the pistachio shining through. Unfortunately, I couldn't do justice to the dessert since it was on the heavy side, and had to leave it half-finished.

Conclusion

I liked corduroy. The ambience was warm and comfortable, with a subdued, almost introverted feel to it. The focus on a central ingredient was refreshing and the food was good.

I haven't mentioned the service at Corduroy so far, because it wasn't much of a factor. It was quick, mostly unobtrusive and helpful. This is a good thing.

Ratings

Corduroy Review
Service Unobtrusive and helpful
Decor Comfortable and subdued
Food Good, solid and pleasing