Homogenized dining drives a spike into chef's delight

THE REAL DISH

November 29, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

To the list of great mismatches in life -- oil and water, fire and ice, Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville -- add this one: Spike Gjerde and chain restaurants.

The chef of Spike & Charlie's says the new corporate-owned eateries in the Baltimore area -- at least six of which have opened in the last year -- are homogenizing eating out in this town.

"What does it say about the local dining scene when almost every new restaurant that's opened is a satellite of a distant corporation?" he asks. "I don't begrudge successful restaurants. these guys are making money, more power to them. But there's a real sameness to many of these places. You get the impression that the people who work there are not encouraged to expand their horizons beyond the formula established by the mother ship. I'm just concerned that food doesn't mean as much as it did or could.

"And amid the hype, there's a tendency to overlook real talent in this town, like Joseph Poupon of Patisserie Poupon."

While Mr. Gjerde has made a successful restaurant out of a jinxed corner of Cathedral Street, the public is the ultimate arbiter. On a recent Friday in Towson at least three chain restaurants had long waiting lists for dinner. With that kind of popularity, it looks as if they've found an audience.

Mr. Gjerde incidentally, recently turned over his apron to chef Maria Williams for Sunday brunch. Word has it her buttermilk pancakes with pan-roasted local pears are winning cheers and expanding waistlines.

Besides chains, the other trend still, ah, brewing around town is coffee bars. Exactly how much cappuccino, espresso and decaf Baltimoreans can drink -- and how much profit the owners can squeeze out those cups -- remains to be seen, but here's the latest.

The local king of coffee, Tom Thompson, who with his wife, Rosemary, owns the Coffee Mill in Hampden, has expanded his Belvedere Square location to include an espresso bar. There are now 48 different kinds of coffee available and more variations planned every day. Last week, Mr. Thompson and his wife were tinkering with a new creation: amaretto espresso.

After 17 years in the business, he still credits his former profession, teaching, with getting him serious about the beverage.

"You needed a lot of coffee to teach math in Baltimore city schools," he says with a chuckle.

Mr. Thompson also has started selling scones, biscotti, muffins and other pastries at the espresso bar. Credit for the calories goes to Stacey Sell, who is quickly becoming known as the baker to Baltimore's coffee bars. The 30-year-old Maryland native, who owns Happy Endings baking company in Charles Village, supplies sweets to the Coffee Cafe in Towson, the Daily Grind in Fells Point and other spots. Thanks to her new line of naturally sweetened baked goods, you now can have your cake, brownie or black-bottom cupcake and eat it, too.

A new coffee shop in Charles Village called Crosby's is becoming a favorite hang-out for Hopkins students and professors. Another husband and wife team, Diane and Joe Balzano, is at the helm here. (Crosby is Diane's maiden name.) The modest shop -- serving bagels, pastries and quiche -- has only 18 seats but may expand soon.

Speaking of expansions, Strapazza, the moderately priced Italian restaurant in Towson and Annapolis, will more than double its size by early next year. Along with a new spot in Pikesville, Rafael Coppola, a partner in the company, says Strapazza will open two locations downtown.

And there's more news on the Italian food front -- Bruno Scotto has just opened Scotto's Cafe in Belair with his cousin Benny. Their secret weapon: family recipes from their native Naples. Things are going so well that they are considering the White Marsh area for another spot, says Tony Acampa, general manager.

RTC There's lots of experience in the new Italian restaurant, Liberatore's, slated to open next month in Timonium. It's truly a family affair here: John Liberatore, his two brothers and a cousin are partners in the project, while John's parents help out in the kitchen. The Mediterranean decor -- with its murals on the ceiling and cherubs -- is by interior designer Rebeka Gurfinchel. John and his brothers also own Velleggia's Casa Di Pasta in Eldersburg.

To Nghia Hoang, cooking is not unlike his previous profession: working as a cameraman for NBC in Vietnam. The Vietnamese-born chef and owner of Hoang's Seafood Grill, a new Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant in Mount Washington, says "both are art." The two-level restaurant, which will have a sushi bar by next month, was designed by his wife, Fern.

And finally, cheers to Mark Henry of the Milton Inn and Vincent Vanhecke of the Inn at Perry Cabin, whose names appear on a tony list of America's best young chefs in this month's Esquire magazine.

Have news about local restaurants, chefs or clubs? Call (410) 332-6156 or write the Real Dish, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, 21278.

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