Mr. Kozhikunnath N. Mathew took over management of the Calvert Street Cafe in March 1990. In time, he may offer some Indian cuisine. When we visited a few weeks back, the menu focused on fish and sandwiches.
No matter what he serves, one of his main assets is a special room. Just north of the Calvert Street Cafe, on the corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets, are the offices of Alex Brown, in a building that survived the 1904 fire. We walked by at dusk and saw one of Baltimore's most spectacular stained-glass domes through the windows above the sidewalk. Further down the block, 12 S. Calvert St., constructed after the fire, is an exceptionally graceful structure, with a light, fan-shaped window at the second-floor level, a refined bay at the third and, at the entryway, two narrow pillars and an airy porch.
The location is ever so slightly out of the way in the evening, because it's a few blocks up from the harbor. Perhaps to call attention to itself, the management features live, electronically amplified music from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. On the loud Thursday we went, no one else ordered dinner, and when passers-by stopped in, they left, remarking on the noise. (We overheard them because we sat near the door.)
The acoustical problem follows from the room's hard surfaces, which, on the one hand, seem to magnify sound, but, on the other hand, are both interesting and beautiful. The old upper walls and ceiling are formed of delicate plasterwork painted Wedgwood blue and white. The lower walls were tiled years ago in other blues. The floor consists of old-fashioned, small black and white tiles. The unrefurbished, varnished wood bar faces varnished paneling that looks untouched for 60 years. At floor level, a sheet of marble rises next to a brass foot rail. In short, the Calvert Street Cafe looks like an early-in-the-century fish house restaurant par excellence. What's missing are waiters in black with white aprons.
Fortunately, the present staff fills the gap with courtesy. It is evident they want to please, and to put together an eatery that will fill a local purpose.
We began with draft beers, Bass and Moosehead ($2.25 each), and orders of potato skins ($3.95), and catfish fingers ($4.95). (Appetizers were as expensive as their counterparts elsewhere around town. Oysters casino were listed at $7.95, and clams casino at $5.95. Entrees were more modestly priced, however. Burgers were $4.95, trout almondine $7.50 and beer-battered shrimp $7.50.)
The potato skins were cut thicker than usual, and therefore had some food value, though they were also oily. The menu said they came with bacon, Cheddar cheese and sour cream. The Cheddar was like Velveeta, or supermarket cheese slices wrapped in plastic, and there was enough sour cream for six bowls of borscht. The granular breading of the catfish fingers was tasteless. The fish was chewy and in places cold and wet.
Our entrees were much better. They were also very simple. Flounder au crevette ($8.95) was described as "in cream sauce with shrimp, scallops, red pepper and shallots with rice and vegetable." Though the vegetable was missing, the description told the whole story. Rice lay across the plate like snow on a field. Plain cream moistened it, and torn pieces of flounder, a few scallops and squares of heated pepper lay across it. "This is the sort of thing students feed each other when they're first learning to cook," one of my friends remarked. "Pleasant enough."
Seafood fettuccine ($8.50) mixed good pasta with a small amount of cream, a few shrimp, some scallops and crab, and parsley flakes. In our best dish, shrimp Maui ($7.95), there was rice across the plate, toasted coconut at the edge of the rice and heated, canned pineapple and shrimp over the top. Hot canned pineapple tastes far better than cold canned pineapple, and mixed well with coconut and shrimp.
We also shared a bottle of Columbia Crest merlot ($13), but skipped coffees when we found the kitchen was out of desserts. (We'd also tried to order, first, a T-bone steak, then a steak Diane, both $9.95, but the kitchen was out of beef.) "We had desserts," our waitress told us. "My sister made a carrot cake and a cheesecake, but people loved them so much, they're gone." Right, we thought, better go back for lunch.
The next noon (when the cafe was busier and quieter), we split a straightforward Texas Round Up sandwich -- roast beef, cheese, red onion and barbecue sauce ($6.50), and asked about desserts. "We asked the cook to make a custard," our waitress said, "but he said he didn't have all the ingredients."
So, it seems one mustn't go to the Calvert Street Cafe with many demands. Go anyway, though. Buy a sandwich. Drink a beer. It's a great room.
Calvert Street Cafe, 12 S. Calvert St., 837-2233
Hours: Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards