Cusack's in Bolton Hill is stylish to a fault, but the food is excellent

March 11, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

This place is so Bolton Hill you've got to love it. The corner storefront, formerly a grocery and deli called Budlow's, has been lovingly restored -- and with style. The high-ceilinged rooms are freshly painted in cream and hunter green; the colors are picked up in the tile floor. The curves of the black and chrome chairs and the round glass tables soften the stark lines of the floor-to-ceiling windows and shelving.

Brightly packaged gourmet food on those shelves adds as much color and pizazz to the room as the art on the walls. There's De Cecco pasta. Extra-virgin olive oils. Exotic teas. You get the feeling they're here as much for decoration as commerce.

Cusack's is basically a sandwich shop and neighborhood hangout. But where another neighborhood might have a bar with hamburgers, Bolton Hill has a place where the sandwiches are made with such ingredients as warm Brie and Graves Mountain apple butter. A former bond trader works behind the counter. The sourdough and focaccia are from Stone Mill, the pastries from Patisserie Poupon. There's packaged tiramisu in the refrigerator case. The biggest-selling drink is canned Jamaican iced tea in designer cans.

What saves this place from total pretentiousness is that the staff is good-natured and the food excellent. (Good food has the ability to save most things.)

Besides sandwiches and a couple of salads, there are always a few more substantial, gourmet-to-go specials in the case. If you want to eat in, you could order, say, a half-pound of the Greek tenderloin stew (chunks of beef in a rich cinnamon-scented gravy with onions and raisins). Have it over rice with a tossed green salad. Salads are Cusack's strong suit: The house salad has bright green romaine, yellow and red pepper, real tomatoes, matchsticks of carrots and red onion. The sesame-based "Japanese" dressing and the caesar are both delicious.

I like the sandwiches made on Armenian cracker bread, where the ingredients are rolled in the flat bread spread with scallion cream cheese. If you have the Eutaw Place garden roll, it's filled with peppers, onions, tomatoes and cucumber. The Lyric Italian roll has various high-class cold cuts and cheeses.

You can get all sorts of traditional sandwiches, but Cusack's is one of the few upscale sandwich shops where every one of the specialty combinations sounds good to me -- from the Tex Mex chicken salad on a Jalapeno bagel to the roasted vegetables, havarti and hummus on sourdough.

Cusack's soups are homey and comforting, with a couple of selections each day such as creamy peppered potato Parmesan (it has the flavor and texture of cheesy mashed potatoes) and Aunt Sarah's chicken noodle soup, with a heartwarming broth, linguine, chunks of chicken and vegetables.

Forget the desserts that aren't made on the premises; a slice of white chocolate cake didn't live up to its looks. The gelati aren't available yet, but check out the cookies, brownies and muffins. One giant, chewy chocolate chip cookie ought to be enough with your cappuccino, but they're so good you'll probably end up ordering at least one more.

Cusack's

Where: 1501 Bolton St.

Hours: Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: No

Features: Gourmet to go

Non-smoking section? No smoking allowed

Call: (410) 523-1176

Prices: $5-$10

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