St. John's food rap is hard to swallow Dining: A survey places the Annapolis college dead last in the food department. The chef objects.

August 26, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The chef at St. John's College in Annapolis nearly choked with rage yesterday when he heard that the school's food was slammed as the worst of 311 schools surveyed by a national college guidebook.

"I'd like to see the data on that. That's just not possible," fumed Theodore Canto Jr. "I brought in 400 pounds of sand for Beach Night last year! For Italian Night, I brought in a real Italian guitar player to serenade the students! I use fresh saffron, at up to $90 an ounce, in my beans and rice!"

We have bad news and good news for you, Chef Canto. The Princeton Review did survey 56,000 students at 311 schools nationally, on cafeteria food and other burning academic issues, and that's how they voted. They said the best food is at the College of the Atlantic. The results have just been published by Random House as "The Princeton Review's Best 311 Colleges."

The good news is: The guidebook's author, Ed Custard, conceded yesterday that the food data for St. John's is stale -- collected in 1996, a year before Canto picked up the ladle.

Still, Custard insists his book cuts the mustard, and he dodged the chef's challenge that he personally taste the pudding at St. John's.

Students at this alternative liberal arts school expressed appropriate umbrage, saying their chef was the victim of a stomach-wrenching injustice. They don't receive class rankings themselves and don't believe in rankings for anybody else.

"What do you mean, worst food? Nobody died," Josh Kirkman, a 21-year-old sophomore from Greenville, S.C., said as he ate in the college's dining hall yesterday.

"I think it's great. I lost 12 pounds last year," said his companion, Erik Stadnik, a 19-year-old from Pennsylvania.

To investigate whether this highly cultured institution has been unfairly besmirched, this reporter dined in St. John's eateries yesterday for breakfast and lunch.

Conclusion: The dining experience on campus is underappreciated.

The reviewer ate breakfast in the coffee shop in the basement of the college's Great Hall. With its cozy high-backed booths, broad stone fireplace and soothing burble of the deep-fat frier, this warm nook could have been mistaken for any number of homey eateries in London.

There is an unpretentious ambiance to the place, with a bouquet of Utz potato chip bags on a wire shelf above the wicker basket of bagels.

The maitre'd was tastefully attired in a royal blue shirt reading "Pizza Express of Annapolis," where he doubtless received his training.

The menu is sophisticated yet affordable, featuring a wondrous range of fare from Dough Balls at 48 cents to Chix Salad at $2.60 to Meatball Subs for $2.25.

Five varieties of gourmet salads are offered, including "side" and "large."

The chef (not Mr. Canto, but a protege) was fastidious in his preparation of the food, thoughtful enough to clean his fingernails before slicing green peppers for sandwich fixin's.

He applied a discriminating amount of butter on my toast, using an ingenious ketchup squirt bottle filled with yellow liquid. He artfully employed a spray can of the finest Sysco Imperial Concentrated Pan Coating on the grille before frying my eggs.

This marvelous substance perfumed the air of the whole bistro, seeming even to glisten on the foreheads of the just-awakened students who slap-slapped up to the counter in their sandals at 10 a.m. to order spicy fries.

The presentation of my meal was thoughtful but unselfconscious. The fried egg, hash-browns and bagel were served on a paper plate with fanciful swaths of maroon, moss-green and blue around the edges.

The bacon had the most marvelous, rainbow-like bands of brown and beige. Although cold, it fairly burst with wondrous juices when bitten -- not unlike the way a slice of fresh orange explodes when eaten.

My only complaint was with the muffin. It came across as arrogant, even intimidating. Softball sized, the weight of a bread loaf soaked in oil, with blueberries almost black, it wrapped itself defiantly in cellophane as if to say: "You cannot eat me! I am hermetically sealed!"

Lunch at the school's main cafeteria was even more delightful.

The dining hall is elegant, with white Greek columns, a framed oil painting of King William, grand arching windows looking out at College Creek and a neo-classical (I believe) Pepsi Play Station video-game machine.

The buffet offered a cornucopia of breakfast cereals in plastic containers, enough varieties for any gourmand with a taste for Capin' Crunch or Lucky Charms.

I selected a pair of tiny pizzas constructed, ingeniously enough, from English muffins and tomato sauce. Also on my tray was chicken rice Florentine served with biscuits in authentic cellophane wrappers.

Most catchy to the eye was Chef Canto's prized beans and rice with bright green ringlets of chopped leaks and red peppers -- colorful but not weighted down with too much flavor.

Although my taste buds are not refined enough to detect the saffron Canto applied, I did come away with a wonderfully chalky aftertaste.

The pizzas were endearingly homey, not too warm but plenty filling and glistening with color. The sesame chicken had just the right amount of sinew.

The school's public relations office was as rightly outraged as Chef Canto to hear about the negative rating for their food service.

"They catered my wedding," said Susan Borden, a staff member in the public relations office. "My husband and I went to Paris for our honeymoon, and we thought, no question, the fare was better here."

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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