Funky Charm Plus Around-the-world Flavors


August 22, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

World Cafexbar, 2 E. Lombard St., (410) 234-2940. Open Mondays through Fridays for lunch, Saturdays for brunch, Thursdays through Sundays for light supper. MC, V, AE. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no. Prices: $4.25 to $11.95. The first question is: How do you pronounce Cafexbar? Just as it looks, i.e., Caf-ex-bar? Or as if the x were an ampersand, i.e., Cafe & Bar? The second question is whether any place with such a weird name and a dining room that looks like the stage set for the Arabian Nights can possible have food worth eating.

The answer to the second question is a surprising yes.

Gregg Mason, one of four owners, casts movies in his day job, including "Hairspray" and "Avalon." His partners are Kenny Saenz, part owner of the beauty salon Studio 1612; Robert Cox, a decorative artist; and accountant David Martz. What do any of these guys know about good food?

They may or may not know anything, but they do know to hire the right cook (David Sarfaty) to turn out bar food extraordinaire from various parts of the world -- all of it explosively flavorful and vibrantly presented to match the wild decor. The next surprise is that Sarfaty trained at the Mount Vernon Club, an exclusive women's club in Baltimore, and was last cooking at the Cafe Hon.

"We wanted to have an international cuisine," says co-owner David Martz, "with a variety of different foods."

I think they've managed that, considering you can get Greek souvlaki and Thai satay, Jamaican jerk chicken and Mexican quesadillas. And that's just for starters.

On Saturday the World Cafexbar serves brunch (with a complimentary glass of champagne). You might have fresh salmon and poached eggs on a croissant with a dill-flavored hollandaise or broiled Arkansas catfish and two eggs, any style, or pain perdu -- french toast laced with orange liqueur. It's actually a more ambitious menu than the one at dinnertime. That will change in the fall, as the chef decides what works by offering a few specials each evening.

The night we were there, for instance, the specials included a beautifully fresh piece of salmon and artichoke hearts on a bed of pasta so deliciously seasoned it was the best part of the dish. Be warned that the chef serves his salmon somewhat rare, which is fine with me but not for everyone.

I don't eat chicken rare, though, so the tandoori-style, white meat kebabs went back to the kitchen to be cooked a bit more. They were worth the wait -- the tender little morsels, marinated in traditional Indian spices, were as good as you get from tandoori ovens, and not as dry.

The chicken was part of a Global Sampler, a crazy and colorful platter of chicken souvlaki, vegetable and shrimp kebabs arranged with red-, yellow- and green-pepper rings plus lettuce, tomato slices, sprouts, feta cheese and four different sauces: yogurt with cilantro, yogurt with mint, a bright-pink, sweet red pepper sauce and a yellow curry sauce for the tandoori kebab. You can order any of the kebabs alone, but the combination of tandoori chicken; fat, garlicky shrimp; well-seasoned pork tenderloin (the souvlaki); and marinated grilled vegetables works very well.

Another special that evening was a vaguely Mexican fajita steak salad, just as eye-popping as the Global Sampler. Bits of flavorful steak, chopped lettuce and ripe avocado overflowed a scalloped fried tortilla "bowl." It was garnished extravagantly with olives and salsa and colored tortilla chips.

You can also make a meal of the excellent bar food on the light-fare menu. This is a restaurant made for grazing. The various tidbits we tried included jerk chicken wings (served with honey) so intensely spicy that they built up an explosive charge; quesadillas -- crisp tortilla wedges filled with cheeses, chili hTC peppers and onion; enormous grilled shrimp with a "tropical salsa" tasting of pineapple and ginger. But best of all was the hummus -- perhaps not oily enough for purists, with a bit more lemon than usual and a few pine nuts on top. All improvements as far as I was concerned. It was hard to stop eating it on the warm, crisp-edge pita triangles. (You get more of that good pita with the kebabs, by the way, as well as sun-dried tomato rolls.)

We finished off with chocolate dipped strawberries -- delicious, but the garnish of red leaf lettuce was a little strange even for the World Cafexbar. Most of the blueberry cobbler-tart went untouched. It tasted a bit too healthy, as if it was made with granola, fruit and yogurt.

I've put off describing the World Cafexbar's interior design, mostly because words fail me. The one enormous room with floor-to-ceiling windows and bare wood floors has gilt radiators, faux marble columns and a lost-city-in-the-desert mural. And, of course, the mystical cult appointments like those world globes between the curved horns. The room has a lot of funky charm.

As for the name, you pronounce it "World Cafe-ex-bar." "We wanted something different than the usual ampersand," David Martz says.

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