Joy America, imagination runs amok

February 01, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

If the new Joy America Cafe were half as good as all the hype surrounding its opening, it would be the most fabulous restaurant in Baltimore. With its off-the-wall West Coast style, a young, energetic chef and a menu as lyrical as a poem, the American Visionary Art Museum's restaurant has created more excitement than any other food news of the winter. (Except the lack of bread and milk on supermarket shelves during the blizzard.)

Joy America has everything. It has an ultra-hip dining room, so less-is-more that even Mies would have been jealous. It has politically correct food, organically grown and non-genetically engineered. It has tall food, Pacific Rim food, Southwestern food, fused food, -- every trend foodies have been talking about, with the exception of tiramisu. (Too passe.) It has dishes so expensive they must be good. The kitchen redefines the expression "imaginative cuisine."

"Citrus and Pumpkinseed Seared Antelope with Virginia Ham and Brussels Sprout Succotash," anyone?

But here's the good news. If you can look past all the hype, if you can avoid some of the more bizarre flights of fancy, if you can ignore the fact that the buttermilk cat-head biscuit with the grilled duck breast is the same thing as the blue cornbread with the "honey white pistachio" ice cream for dessert, you could have a terrific meal.

You could have an exquisitely seasoned sourdough-bread soup with a garnish of smoked-chicken slivers and a swirl of pureed avocado. You could follow it with a glorious, grilled duck breast, served very rare with an intense, mahogany-colored sauce infused with molasses and ginger. If seafood is your thing, the mahi mahi is wonderfully fresh and succulent (supposedly crusted in dried papaya and cashew, but for all I know it could have been dried quince and macadamia).

Sometimes, though, what sounds wonderful is anything but. Oysters seared with peanut and curry in a lime-yogurt dressing had such a dominating crust that they might as well have been fried cotton balls. There was no yogurt in sight.

A salad of spinach, dried pears and Vidalia onions was drenched in a warm, oily dressing. And what were the sugar-coated pecans doing in it?

Navajo flat-bread with wood-grilled peppers and tomato-olive salsa could have been extraordinary, but the bread was seriously charred.

And desserts are so clever, so labyrinthine, so garnished with squiggles and swirls and corn husks and herbs, with strange juxtapositions and weird ingredients, you want to grab Chef Peter Zimmer by the shirt and explain that sometimes something very simple, like the delicate "honey white pistachio" ice cream, is so good it deserves to be on a plate by itself.

That said, you must give Joy America a try if imaginative food interests you at all. So what if the white Cheddar-and-garlic mashed potatoes with the superb cinnamon-and-chili grilled-tenderloin of beef taste like chili powder and nothing else? Even the cafe's failures have a sort of doomed magnificence to them.

Joy America Cafe

800 Key Highway

(410) 244-6500

Open Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. for lunch, 5:30-10:15 p.m. for dinner

Major credit cards

Prices: appetizers, $5-$9; entrees, $16-$24

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