First there was countryside, then there were farms, and no there are condominiums and business parks. Baltimore's inexorable expansion has meant, in upper York Road terms, the end of Loveton Farms, and the beginning of Loveton Farms Townhomes, the Loveton Business Center and, on the west side of York Road, the JMT Building, home to local offices of Quaker Oats, and to the Loveton Cafe.
The address is Sparks; about a mile and a half north of Shawan Road, the cafe occupies a niche with a southern exposure on the JMT Building's first floor. Large windows look out on professional landscaping, sidewalks and parked cars. Black lacquer chairs, pale rose walls and tablecloths, and small bouquets of cloth flowers ornament a space that feels new, tentative and spare.
The room design has one awkward feature: A significant work area for the service staff juts out into the dining room and constitutes a potential visual nuisance. Offered a table where we would watch kitchen chores, we asked to sit around the corner.
We received a complimentary glass of wine when we sat down, which we thought an exceptional, gracious gesture. Then we discovered, when our appetizers were served, that the restaurant has no liquor license. Apparently the liquor board permits one such free glass of wine. Had we known earlier how matters stood, we would have brought wine, or run out to buy some.
(We were equally unprepared when we discovered we needed $65 cash to pay our bill and tip. As the cafe develops its routines, undoubtedly diners will be told such things when they make reservations.)
Grumpy complaints aside, the Loveton Cafe offers pleasant meals with generous portions at reasonable prices. Three of us began dinner with appetizers of Maryland crab meat ($4.25), a lightly grilled fish ($3.25) and a cup of mushroom soup ($1.20), which was the soup of the day. There were two other soups under $2, two salads at $2.25 and fettuccine Alfredo at $2.95.
Over romaine leaves, the snowy-white lump crab meat was fresh and attractively plain, with a lemon slice and a small cup of horseradish-and-tomato barbecue sauce. The sole was served in the style of the great old fish restaurants of yesteryear: filleted, dusted with paprika and lacquered with butter and lemon -- a chaste white fish on a white plate. The mushroom soup was only marginally mushroom, but the flavors of broth and cream had some character.
Our entrees came with likable, quite fresh green salads, composites of romaine, cucumber, tomato slices and good, strong olives. To take the trouble to buy lively olives is a virtue many restaurants disregard. Dressings were light.
Among entrees, we sampled grilled salmon with fresh sweet red peppers ($12.95), scaloppine veal Franchaise ($12.95) and crab cake and filet mignon ($12.95). We were served a sizable chunk of salmon, unfortunately somewhat overcooked, dry and tasteless. Salmon comes in varying qualities these days, but of course, the best, silkiest salmon costs more than the cafe sets out to charge. Happily, the fish was improved by the simplicity of a sauce of pureed red peppers, a subtle orange under a flash of bright orange.
The three large scaloppine were reminiscent of the rich meals of yesteryear. Coating the veal was a gorgeous, rippling wrap of flour and egg, spongy with a copiousness of butter laced with lemon. In context, fidgets about oils seemed like so much dull carping: It begged to be enjoyed.
The crab cake, too, demonstrated the thinking of a trained chef. Chunks of back fin crab were set, like jewels, in a body of regular crab, to make a cake that was both elegant and coherent. Broiled, the crab meat took on an appetizingly golden color, yet remained free of grease. The filet mignon, by contrast, was mealy, and lacked the moist resilience one expects in a just-cut piece of meat.
All three entrees came with fresh broccoli cooked to a bright green firmness, and a choice between a baked potato and an amiable dish of wild and white rices.
Though we were told the strawberry shortcake had been made fresh, I wouldn't order it again or either of the other two desserts we sampled. It was mostly artificial whipped cream and fluffy, tasteless cake, flavored with a couple of cut-up strawberries in the middle and a strawberry on top. A chocolate cake with raspberry jelly in the center tasted old, while apple strudel, though very apple, wasn't strudel. They cost only 95 cents a piece, however. Frugal, compulsive dessert eaters may be less critical. *
Next: Egyptian Pizza
Loveton Cafe, 72 Loveton Circle, Sparks, 472-2080
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: Cash and personal checks
Features: Steak and seafood
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes