Easy On The Eyes And The Palate

DINING OUT

November 17, 1991|By JANICE BAKER

If I were as terrific-looking as Gypsy's Cafe, I wouldn't sling words for a living. I'd stand around to be stared at. I'd sit like a flower in a bed and disregard interruptions. I'd be.

From the outside looking in, Gypsy's looks like some Parisian quarter of special bistros that serve heart-melting beef stews and obscure country red wines, followed by tartes Tatin.

What are the restaurant's clevernesses? To start, in the course of six months of what must have been back-breaking effort, the owners transformed the old (and probably ordinary) into the unusual: walls, aubergine; the dado, green-black; ceiling, white. They cleaned and polished all the pretty brass fixtures -- the door plates, knobs and light-switch plates -- to make visible the curlicues and embellishments they were born with.

They installed and glossed a sturdy proletarian bar from someplace else, and painted black an overarching 10-foot spread of pressed-tin ceiling. They faux-tortoise-shelled a batch of thrift-store chairs; collected a beautifully quasi-corny bunch of clunky and less clunky plates; laid immaculate, starched, white damask cloths on the tables, and then -- genius! -- set the tables with miniature pumpkins and vases of fresh tulips and freesias the color of cream sherry.

Gypsy's Cafe is art. We swooned, insofar as adults more or less in their right minds do that sort of thing. There's an attractive terrace outside, furnished with tables and chairs and umbrellas, but we stayed in. Sky is cheap.

Not that the Gypsy's Cafe is pricey. A pint of imported draft beer cost $2.50 (Hacker-Pschorr Dark, Foster's Lager or Bass Ale), a pint of domestic (Rolling Rock), $1.75. A hot hoagie was $4.95, a Soweburger (beef and salsa), $4.50. (Soweburger comes from SoWeBo, a word formed out of SOuth WEst BaltimOre.)

To test the cafe's culinary skills, we began with two soups, black bean and tomato ($2.50 each), and a hot shrimp dip ($3.95), made, according to the menu, from "an original Eastern Shore recipe." Each was pleasant and uncomplicated. The black bean soup had none of the depth of a long-cooked Spanish bean soup, but we liked the chopped celery and onion flavorings, and the assertiveness of a stiff dose of lemon juice.

We thought the tomato had been pureed in a food processor, which tends to make for an idiosyncratic pastiness, but it, too, had appealing flavors, part tomato and basil, and part heavy cream. The hot shrimp dip was more chopped hard-boiled egg than shrimp, mixed with cream and diced red onion. It was delightful with the sliced, warm French bread that came to the side (fresh daily from Safeway, and good, by virtue of its freshness).

It was a warm evening, so we washed everything down with pints of imported draft beer. There were three sorts available, all poured from a handsome, brass, mushroom-shaped cowling whose pumps drew cold beer up from casks laid in the restaurant's cellar. Also, a small selection of wines was described, and more are already on the menu for the near future.

Our main courses were grilled tuna ($9.95), Hollins skewers ($7.95) and stuffed shells ($6.95). They reinforced our first impressions, that the kitchen, though not sophisticated, was essentially capable. In practical terms, their simple intentions translate into low prices.

Of course, these days it's almost cruel to a restaurant to order fish, so difficult is it to find fresh pieces. The Gypsy's tuna was not tuna that had just been taken from the water, and too-thorough cooking made it dry, but oiled pasta on the side, flavored with a -- of curry powder, made an effective contrast.

The "skewers" change day by day according to what looks appetizing at Hollins Market across the street. We found chunks of chicken (overcooked for our tastes), together with tasty morsels of mushroom, tomato, red onion and green pepper. A marginally bitter, curry-flavored rice had the visual and textural pleasures of chopped nuts and red pepper. We liked our cheapest entree best, two pasta shells the size of mangoes stuffed mostly with ricotta cheese, but mixed with Romano and Parmesan cheese, and topped by a delicious meaty tomato sauce. All three plates came with a dish of lightly oiled zucchini and yellow squash.

Desserts ($2.95) satisfied the sweet tooth without addressing the soul. Pecan pie was a single layer of pecans over a thick, serviceable filling, while the thick cheesecake tended toward density. An Oreo cookie delight tasted best in its frozen brick state. Room temperature, its intense sweetness cloyed. Maybe Oreo cookies and cream in combination aren't worth the guilt.

Better to sip a coffee in preparation for a stroll in the area. Look in, for example, at the 19th Century Shop across the street. Even in the dark, the iron stairway that coils inside looks like a gem of 19th century design.Next: Union Hotel

GYPSY'S CAFE,

1103 Hollins St., 625-9310

HOURS:

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

ACCEPTS: MC, V

FEATURES: Eclectic menu

NO-SMOKING AREA: No

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

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