Cafe is hit-and-miss, but decor is sure-fire

September 30, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

The Washington Cafe is worth the price of admission for the interior decorating alone. The dining room of the Mount Vernon Hotel, run by the Baltimore International Culinary College as a training ground, is unique. And that's not a word I use loosely.

Picture a room with a two-story-high ceiling, with whitewashed brick walls above dark wood paneling. Imagine lace curtains in the windows, which stretch to the ceiling, and classical statuary, one per window.

On the walls, mounted deer heads and a tapestry covered with mounted fish. And skylights filled with trompe l'oeil blue sky and clouds. With ceiling fans. Add potted palms, white-clothed tables covered with glass and bentwood chairs. Some funky music on the sound system (or it might be classical).

Somehow it all works.

And the food?

Family-style Italian. Pastas and pizzas and seafood specials.

They could be serving TV dinners, and I'd probably go there for lunch. That's how much I like the blue-sky ceiling with the puffy clouds. Luckily the food, produced by chefs who are graduates of BICC and sous chefs who are in training, is better than that. But you have to be patient, because there are some rough edges and you have to be willing to be surprised.

For instance: I order gnocchi as a first course, described as "three potato dumplings." What I got was a whole dinner of tender, chewy gnocchi in a nice homemade tomato sauce with lots of melted Parmesan. I could only nibble at the salad that followed. Slices of grilled chicken and crumbled feta were arranged on greens with cucumbers and pine nuts and a pleasant vinaigrette, but I was too full to care.

The Washington Cafe's pizzas sound good, but the waiter warns you that the wait will be 20 minutes. Who has that kind of time at lunch? Instead, try one of the homemade pastas. It might be sauced with a special of plump shrimp in a good chunky tomato sauce. (The mussels that surrounded it were steamed to the point of dryness, which I didn't think was possible.)

Sandwiches are huge. The two we tried were rather bilious-looking because the green pesto pasta salad was nestled in a radicchio leaf that clashed with the sliced tomato on lettuce. But a "steak de Roma" sandwich tasted great in a good, greasy sort of way, with shaved beef, onions and melted mozzarella on what tasted like a warm homemade roll. Or try focaccia stuffed with Italian cold cuts, provolone and roasted red pepper, then the whole thing grilled with a warm tomato-basil sauce on the side.

Desserts run to the spectacular, as you might expect from a culinary college, and the Black Forest cake was as fudgy good as it looked. But the cannoli had spent too much time in the fridge and was consequently pretty limp; our waiter took it off the check.

That's the kind of glitch that you may have to put up with, because this is a training ground. But prices are certainly reasonable, and where else are we going to be able to eat under blue skies once the snow flies?

Washington Cafe

Where: Franklin and Cathedral streets

Hours: Open every day for breakfast 7 a.m.-10 a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards

Features: Italian and light fare

Non-smoking section? Yes

Call: (410) 727-2000

Prices: $2.95-$8.95

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