What's Brewing? New-wave Coffeehouses

DINING OUT

January 31, 1993|By GAIL FORMAN

Incorrect business hours are listed in the review of Donna' Coffee Bar in today's Sun Magazine. Hours are 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays; and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Every day brings a new upscale coffeehouse, or so it seems in Baltimore. Who would have thought a year ago that today we'd have such a wealth of places to sip espresso and cappuccino in all their variations?

Some of these new spots serve a lot of coffee and a little food, some attract customers as much for their variety of food as brewed drink. Freddie's and Donna's fit in the latter category. They specialize in gourmet coffee drinks and contemporary food.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Both also are warm and relaxing places, yet each has a distinctive personality.

Freddie's of Water Street, 106 Water St. (410) 752-5757. Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. Credit cards: AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no.

On its menu, Freddie's boasts of bringing to Baltimore "a unique blending of atmosphere and taste in the tradition of Europe's finest coffeehouses." That translates to an informal setting and a familiar but choice menu.

An industrial-size, old-fashioned coffee grinder, shining red and black, dominates the entrance. Stairs with polished brass rails lead from the upstairs dining-kitchen area to a larger dining room downstairs. Upstairs feels cozier: There are shelves of attractively packaged gourmet merchandise, bins of coffee beans and specialty teas, and newspapers that encourage lingering.

As befits a coffeehouse, coffee stars among beverages. In addition to the regular and flavored coffees of the day ($1.10), there are French press coffee ($3.95), espresso, espresso variations ($2.50) and lots more. I tried the house special, caffesorbetto ($2.75), a luscious, sweetened, frozen cappuccino, and think it will be especially refreshing when hot weather returns. But Thai drip coffee ($2.50) with sweetened condensed milk is definitely an acquired taste.

What's coffee without a sweet? Freddie's offers muffins and poppy-seed cake, coffeecakes, amaretto brownies and chocolate toffee.

For those wanting savory fare, the menu runs to soups ($2.60), salads -- tuna, chicken, shrimp and egg ($4.50-$5.95) -- and sandwiches.

Brisket of beef ($4.95), served on sourdough, rye or croissant, needed only a good barbecue sauce for moistening. I also enjoyed the turkey sandwich on sourdough ($4.50) for its juicy meat.

Flameout Gonzales' Award-Winning Texas Red Chile ($2.60) was satisfyingly full-flavored. Served with grated Cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream, it lacked only the spiciness imparted by fresh hot chilies.

Service at Freddie's is cafeteria-style but the friendly counter help more than makes up for the lack of table service. The restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch, so you'll have to make a special trip to its side-street location if you don't happen

to live or work downtown. It's worth the trek.

Donna's Coffee Bar, 2 W. Madison St. (410) 385-0180. 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays for brunch and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for supper. Credit cards: AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no.

Donna's is a full-service, sophisticated coffeehouse with Italian leanings. And there actually is a coffee bar. Beverages (85 cents to $3) run from daily coffee specials to menu listings of espresso, espresso macchiato (my personal favorite), cappuccino, caffe latte, caffe royale (espresso poured over Ben and Jerry's ice cream) and more.

The heart of Donna's is a contemporary, minimalist-design cafe with comfortable black chairs, small but adequate wood tables, black track lighting that complements the pale gray walls, and old oak and pine floors.

The limited menu is augmented with daily pasta specials. The day I ate there it was a better-than-usual lasagna with ricotta cheese, eggplant and tomato sauce.

Sandwiches ($4.95-$5.45), too, have strong Italian overtones. They include pan bagnia (mortadella, prosciutto and capicolla), Sicilian tuna salad, and roast turkey breast dressed up with roasted sweet red peppers and tapenade spread.

Many dishes are variations on a theme. I tried the excellent roasted vegetables atop fresh salad greens ($4.95); they can also be had sandwiched between pieces of olive sourdough bread ($4.95) or spooned over pasta ($5.25). They are the kitchen's pride, these succulent roasted beets, sweet red peppers, sweet potatoes, eggplant and artichoke hearts bathed vibrant olive oil and herbs.

My soup of the day, shredded kale and potato chunks in a vegetable broth, tasted fine after a sprinkling of salt and pepper. It came with superior focaccia and sourdough bread and a plate of fruity olive oil for dipping.

Donna's desserts are made in-house. My favorite is her biscotti (75 cents), despite their unexpected sweetness. I also tried a special -- a daunting bowl of bread pudding in a sweetened cream soup so good that I ate every bite.

Next: Patrick's

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