Xando finds a niche among coffee bars

February 18, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Xando is a new coffee bar in town with a split personality. By day, it deals in double espressos, lattes and mochas. By night, it serves up something a little stronger. The change occurs at four o'clock, when a mural on the wall is raised to reveal a full liquor bar.

Xando's location near Johns Hopkins University on North Charles Street is its first in Baltimore, with others planned for Towson and the Inner Harbor. The Connecticut-based chain started in Hartford in 1994 and now has 15 sites.

The look of these coffee/liquor bars is hip, arty, urban and saturated with color. Each is decorated slightly differently, inspired by its surroundings. In Baltimore, they used a rich color scheme of warm red, deep green and gold. Those colors are everywhere -- on the walls, the retro hanging lamps, even the diamond pattern of stained wood under the bar.

The restaurant is on two levels. Seating is limited upstairs. There are more tables downstairs, where poetry readings, live music and other events are featured regularly.

The menu is pretty limited, too. It's more extensive than Starbucks, less so than Donna's. Soup, salads and sandwiches are available all day and at night at the counter, where patrons order and pick up their food. Don't expect any fancy glassware for those steamed coffee drinks. Our regular and chai latte were served to us in paper cups, even though we weren't getting our food to go.

While there are plenty of beverage options (from Italian sodas to something called a power Arctic mocha), there aren't any for appetizers -- just the soup of the day when we visited. We tried the black bean, a wonderfully winey version, made with both whole and pureed beans. There was a lot going on in this simple soup, which had undercurrents of spiciness.

The rest of the menu is limited to sandwiches and few salads. There's a simple house salad with carrots, tomatoes and mushrooms; one topped with strips of roasted turkey, ham and Swiss; and an Oriental sesame noodle chicken salad that sounds more elaborate than it is. What we actually got was a small plate of chopped romaine and radicchio with slivers of moist chicken breast, a few French-cut green beans and ramen noodle pieces in a sweet Asian dressing flavored with sesame oil.

Sandwich wraps are filled with pesto chicken, turkey and Swiss, and tuna mixed with dried cranberries. The fish-fruit combo intrigued us so we ordered the tuna, which came wrapped in a tomato tortilla with potato chips on the side. The tuna salad tasted fresh, made with chunk white tuna and tiny bits of celery, but there wasn't a cranberry to be found in the whole sandwich.

The best choice at Xando's may be the panini. These grilled sandwiches feature dense country-style bread made by a local baker according to Xando's specs. We liked the country ham panini, grilled with lots of thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese and a smear of Dijon. But all the variations sound delicious -- grilled vegetables, three cheese and tomato, turkey and brie, and chicken salsa verde.

For dessert, look in the bakery case, or order an ice cream sundae or a screamer, a frozen coffee drink capped with ice cream. We did a double take at the listing for the old-fashioned summer-camp favorite: s'mores. For these, you do the work, toasting marshmallows over a little iron burner, and slapping them between chocolate and graham crackers. Even for this nostalgic former Girl Scout, though, the sweet, sticky result isn't worth the effort.

Xando

600 S. 3003 N. Charles St.

410-889-7076

Hours: Open daily, serving light fare for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Entrees, $4.95-$5.50

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***

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

Pub Date: 02/18/99

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