On the Hill coffee shop draws a crowd in Bolton Hill

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

October 20, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was a picturesque scene -- a chilly, rainy fall Saturday in one of the city's most attractive neighborhoods, Bolton Hill.

Shiny wet leaves in shades of orange, red and brown dripped to the sidewalk outside the handsome brick buildings. Students from Maryland Institute College of Art walked from the nearby campus.

It seemed as though everyone was heading to the same place: On the Hill, a tiny coffee and sandwich shop that opened in May at John and Mosher streets. People shook out their umbrellas as they entered the cozy space and joined a line at the counter that swelled and shrank but never disappeared.

This is the kind of casual neighborhood place that should invite lingering. But it's hard to linger at On the Hill. For one thing, it's too small and crowded. And for another, it doesn't have a bathroom -- a problem after a few cups of coffee.

When it's crowded, as it often is, it's easier to order those homemade muffins and sandwiches to go.

The shop is owned by Bolton Hill residents George and Jessica Dailey and run by George, who previously worked as a sous chef at East Meets West, a well-known Boston catering company.

Dailey said he's in his cafe nearly every waking hour. Even when it's not open, he's roasting beef for sandwiches or squeezing oranges for juice. Everything is baked in-house, from the quiche of the day ($3.99) to the muffins ($1.49) and coconut flan ($2.99), he said.

The flan, advertised on a chalkboard outside the cafe, was sold out by the time we arrived, but the muffins were still available. They were sweet and dense, studded with blueberries and topped with a smattering of sugar crystals.

On the Hill has taken the wise approach of doing only a few things, but doing them well. It offers nine sandwiches, all named for surrounding streets. The Lafayette ($6.75) combines roast beef, horseradish and greens. The Mt. Royal ($6.50) combines hummus, grilled eggplant, tomato and greens.

Dailey said the McMechen ($6.95) is one of the most popular sandwiches, and I can see why. A spinach tortilla is generously stuffed with curried chicken salad, red grapes, mango chutney, pecans and lettuce. The chicken salad alone would have been delicious, with its large, fresh chunks of white meat and mild curry mayonnaise. But the sliced grapes and nuts add crunch and complexity, while the mango chutney adds a touch of sweetness.

A breakfast burrito ($4.75) in a tomato tortilla roll was similarly hearty. Served steaming hot, it combined scrambled eggs, a touch of salsa and some Monterey Jack cheese.

Dailey also said the Vietnamese Summer Rolls ($3.50) were top sellers. These fat rolls, wrapped in translucent rice paper, bulge with carrots, spinach, vermicelli noodles and mint and come with a sesame soy dipping sauce.

Nearly everything is visible in display cases, including desserts. The strawberry cheesecake ($2.99) boasted a commendably light texture and was topped with a sweet strawberry sauce, but the crust was soft, bordering on mushy. The brownie ($1.99), wrapped in plastic and sold alongside similarly wrapped cookies and slices of cake, was fairly plain -- no nuts, no frosting, just good chocolate flavor.

On the Hill serves espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and mochas. Dailey said he gets his coffee from two sources -- the locally owned Java Journey and a Canadian firm. My latte must have come from Canada, because it had hardly any coffee flavor. A soda case holds bottled water, sodas, Odwalla juices and Tazo Teas.

On the Hill Cafe and Market

Where:

1431 John St., Bolton Hill

Call:

410-225-9667

Open:

Monday through Friday 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Credit cards: All major

Prices:

Muffins, bagels, fruit cups and salads, $1.49-$5.99, sandwiches $6.50-$6.95

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: ** (2 stars)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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