Cafe Open's casual charms may delight or set your teeth on edge

September 10, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Margaret Footner probably doesn't remember, but I was the one who named her cafe last August. I was wandering around Fells Point when I spotted the hand-painted sign outside: "Cafe open." I had to poke my head inside -- it's an occupational disease oMargaret Footner probably doesn't remember, but I was the one who named her cafe last August. I was wandering around Fells Point when I spotted the hand-painted sign outside: "Cafe open." I had to poke my head inside -- it's an occupational disease of restaurant critics -- and realized the sign was a slight exaggeration. Ms. Footner was serving only muffins and desserts and coffee, and she hadn't come up with a name for the place yet. Hey, I said, just call it Cafe Open. You already have the sign.

It's a year later and Margaret's Cafe Open has a beautiful and very professional-looking sign outside. Inside is a pretty, light-filled dining room, renovated just a year ago, with mismatched chairs drawn up to the marble-topped tables; Chagall, Miro and Roualt reproductions on the walls; and fresh flowers and candles.

The chalkboard menu, which changes daily, has expanded to include soups, salads, ethnic dishes and some Eastern Shore seafood. The food is really quite good, but the cafe is an amateur operation. For some, that will be part of its charm. For others, plan to be irritated.

For instance: Will it bother you that the owner sits chatting with friends at a nearby table while your water glasses remain unfilled and the dishes need clearing? Do you care that when you ask the waiter to turn down the music a little he does so grudgingly and turns it back up at the first opportunity?

Perhaps a slice of crab quiche will make up for any glitches ithe service. The rich custard is generously full of fresh crab meat, and the crust flaky and short. A salad on the side has a variety of interesting greens and wedges of juicy, red, late-summer tomatoes.

I rarely mention food I haven't actually tried, but the crab cakelooked wonderful. I regretted not ordering them, especially when I saw they were served with local Silver Queen corn and fresh, emerald-green beans.

But I liked my Middle Eastern "Stolen Chicken," a boneless breast topped with a spicy fruit and raisin sauce. With it came an excellent lentil salad and sauteed carrots. Also good was a stir-fry of broccoli, squash, onions, carrots and bean sprouts over pasta with a zingy sesame sauce. (Vegetarian dishes are a significant part of Cafe Open's menu.)

Less successful were our first-course soups, perhaps because they were so substantial. I can see eating the huge bowl of tangy, fresh gazpacho as a main course -- especially with the excellent whole wheat bread. But the peach and melon soup tasted like baby food heavily flavored with ginger -- a little went a long way. The only real appetizer (that is, something you could finish and still have room for another course) was melon with prosciutto. The honeydew was lusciously ripe and delicious with the salty ham, but the five little cubes were served on a bare plate with toothpicks. Odd, when so much attention is paid to the appearance of the food otherwise.

Desserts are homemade but sometimes sit around too long, like a peach pie with a soggy crust. The decadently good nut-chocolate tarts must sell well: Ours tasted as if it had been baked only hours before. Stay away from the lemon-lime daiquiri sherbet, which tasted like rapidly melting lemonade concentrate. And the decaffeinated coffee was lukewarm and bitter.

Not to end on a down note, Cafe Open has brunch on Sundaythat sounds good; the specialties are apricot french toast and huevos rancheros with black beans and homemade salsa.

Margaret's Cafe Open

Where: 909 Fell St.

Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: None

Features: Light fare

Non-smoking section? No

Call: (410) 276-5605

Prices: $5-$12.50

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