Go to the Bay Cafe to dig your feet into sand, to sip a cocktail while staring at the harbor, to check out the young and available. Go to this popular Baltimore meeting place to grab a bite, but don't focus sharply on the food.
It's not that we had a bad experience. Far from it. It's just that what stood out about our evening here were the dockside ambience, the desserts and the appetizers.
People mingle at the man-made beach with palm trees and tiki lights, and at several outdoor and indoor bars. There are dining tables in the sand, on the terrace, and inside.
We wouldn't have thought of the Bay Cafe as a dessert spot, but having gone there, we now recommend sharing coffee and something sweet in the glow of a tiki light. None of the desserts is made in-house; all we tried, though, were delicious.
Strawberry shortcake stood 5 inches high, topped by a mammoth berry. Fresh and light, it was constructed of layers of soft spongecake and clouds of sweet whipped cream. On the opposite end of the dessert spectrum, the Snickers cheesecake was dense and sweet. A thick, chewy layer of chocolate, peanuts and caramel was topped by a thin coating of cheesecake, perfect for those with a serious sweet tooth. The mousse cake was more mousse than cake, with a fluffy texture and light chocolate flavor.
Appetizers were terrific, too, especially the crab balls. These were among the best we've tried, not doughy like some. Greaseless and delicate-tasting with lumps of crab, they were like eating a golf-ball-size crab cake. Five of them were worth $6.95.
A portion of jerk chicken was generous also. Boneless chicken tenders were marinated and rubbed with a thick coating of herbs. It was a nice change from the barroom staples of fried chicken fingers and buffalo wings. A sweet honey mustard sauce, whipped so that it looked like banana pudding, was on the side for dunking.
The Bay Cafe serves a chunky version of Maryland crab soup with enough crab meat to satisfy. Big pieces of carrots, potatoes and cabbage gave it homemade flavor.
Expectations were high for the rest of our meal. But the jumbo lump crab cake platter was the only entree without problems. The fat crab cake was made with lots of lump crab and not a lot filler. It tasted so rich, a dining partner almost couldn't finish it.
The chicken stir-fry, one of six similar dishes on the menu, was full of lovely crisp-tender vegetables, but the sauce was bland enough for a baby. Our Italian pizza, with peppers, onions and pepperoni, had a nice crust. Too-sweet marinara, though, tasted like it came from a jar.
We liked being able to select pieces of yellowfin tuna or chicken to top our dinner salad and to request them blackened, char-broiled or dipped in Cajun spices. But the tuna was overcooked and the salad of romaine, cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices was somewhat small and uninteresting.
The shrimp salad sandwich, a house specialty, was an eye-popper. Tons of large pink shrimp in traditional mayonnaise dressing spilled from an open roll. Unfortunately, the salad didn't have a lot of flavor. More troubling, some shrimp were mushy and underdone, others overcooked.
But the Bay Cafe is not about serious food. It's about tiki lamps in the sand, conversation at the bar and people-watching.
At the water's edge in Canton, the Bay Cafe is about location, location, location.
280 Boston St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$8.95; entrees, $6.95-$17.95
Pub Date: 8/28/97