Restaurant: The Joy America Cafe -- like its home, the Visionary Art Museum -- rises above the ordinary with mostly fine results.

August 30, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

If the thought of one more chain steakhouse opening up in Baltimore makes you want to take your bottle of balsamic vinegar and move to another state, run - don't walk - to the Joy America Cafe in the American Visionary Art Museum. Its strange but poetic menu is an antidote for every ordinary restaurant meal you've ever paid too much money for.

After Joy America's original chef and owner, Peter Zimmer, left and went back to Santa Fe, N.M., the cafe made some changes for the better. At lunchtime there are now at least a couple of

items that cost under $10. The staff will try to get you in and out in under an hour (unless you want to linger). And there are some choices for more conservative eaters, like the chicken breast on focaccia sandwich.

At dinnertime, however, our meal was surprisingly uneven. At these prices, you expect things to be close to perfection. And the service was erratic: attentive one minute, nonexistent the next.

The setting almost made up for the flaws. Dinner is the time to eat outside on Joy America's balcony, as the day slowly fades and the city's lights start to wink on.

Baltimore magazine recently named Joy America the city's best place for al fresco dining, and with good reason. The large, curvy balcony off the third floor has a panoramic view of the harbor on one side and an equally engaging view of Federal Hill on the other, with the museum's joyful whirligig sculpture in the foreground.

Joy America's dinner menu is a dazzling combination of Southwestern and Pacific Rim. Each plate is a dramatic work of art - as imaginative as the works of art in the museum itself. Food is towered, decorated with squiggles of colorful coulis, spangled with herbs and garnished with everything from a slice of fresh fig to a curlicue of caramelized sugar. (That last was on our sushi roll appetizer as well as dessert.)

The combinations are surprising, to say the least. Delicious rack-of-lamb chops, tender and pink and charred at the edges, were paired with polenta - a polenta flavored with coconut and dried cherries. Unfortunately, we got three enormous slabs of this sweet polenta, which would have worked in moderation, and only a decorative scattering of slender haricots verts. (Understand that this and my other descriptions of dishes and their ingredients and garnishes have been pared down for lack of space.)

As complicated as this food is, the slip-ups were quite simple, like salmon cooked to the point of dryness. Luckily, the green-lipped mussels alongside the fish were as plump and flavorful as they were beautiful in their mottled green shells. And Asian noodles with a rhubarb sauce had lots of fruity pizazz.

A large crab cake sported handsome lumps of crab meat, seasoning that was an intriguing change of pace from the usual, and an appealing charred tomato sauce. But it could have used a bit less filler.

Appetizers, too, had their ups and downs. Ahi tuna and salmon rolls were very fine, their delicate flavors accented with fiery wasabi and Asian oil. Scallops and bite-sized pieces of butter-tender beef were skewered with pearl onions and kumquats - a fascinating combination that would have been even better if the tenderloin had not been cooked medium well done. Corn chowder with smoked chicken and julienned zucchini tasted like the essence of fresh corn and cream. Too bad it had a sinus-clearing amount of hot pepper.

Desserts sounded wonderful but two of the three had their flaws. The best was something called "Spoons of Joy," three Japanese soup spoons filled with three different flavors of creme brulee.

The featured dessert was a charming conceit: an oversized tube-shaped almond tuile cookie standing on end filled with chocolate mousse, with another cookie shaped like the museum's whirligig on top. But the mousse itself was extremely heavy and there was more than enough of it for all of us, which somehow wasn't very appetizing.

A pound cake and fruit salsa concoction was pleasant enough but decorated with thin slices of pale, wood-centered strawberries.

My recommendation? Don't give up on Joy America: There's so much potential here, and the view alone is worth a visit. The cafe of the Visionary Art Museum needs to offer offbeat and fascinating food; that's practically its mission. But perhaps because the dishes are so complicated, sometimes the simplest things - like not overcooking the fish - are overlooked.

JOY AMERICA CAFE

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 800 Key Highway

Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch

Prices: Appetizers: $5.25-$9.95, main courses: $17.95-$28.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-244-6500

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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