Tradition makes welcome return

November 29, 2008|By jacques kelly | jacques kelly,

It wasn't just that the apple pie and the pumpkin cookies smelled so good - the curtains on the windows were right, too. I liked what I saw when the restaurant at the Woman's Industrial Exchange reopened this week.

For those of us who love to slip away to a bit of comfort, nice food and tradition, 333 N. Charles St. remains the right address.

The restaurant portion of the old rowhouse at Charles and Pleasant streets is now Dogwood Cafe and is closely associated with the Dogwood operation on 36th Street in Hampden.

It also seems a good match with this resilient institution created by the women of Baltimore for those down on their luck during an excruciating financial period after the Civil War. In the difficult social times that continue in Baltimore, the Exchange remains true to its mission.

I spoke with the cafe's new operator, Bridget Sampson, who runs it with her husband, Galen. Her philosophy is to have "friendly hiring practices for those in transition from addiction, incarceration or homelessness." In addition to these hires, she has other bakers and cooks to prepare the soups, salads and desserts that will be sold at lunchtime.

In other words, the apples in the pie you just enjoyed might have been peeled by people in job training who are trying to better themselves.

"We are respectful of the history and the tradition of the Exchange," she told me.

I looked around and admired the curtains, which though new, looked as if they totally fit into the spirit of the place. (There was a bad time about five years ago when some metallic beaded room dividers made an unfortunate appearance.)

The Exchange, a nonprofit agency, allows anonymous "consignors" - sewers, knitters and crafts makers - to sell their quilts, christening dresses, children's clothing, baby sweaters and the like in a retail sales room that has scarcely changed since I was a child.

About a decade ago, the 19th-century building that houses the Exchange was falling apart and needed to be closed for a thorough renovation. Its rental apartments (above the first floor) were fixed up, an elevator was added and a modern restaurant kitchen was installed. The salesroom opened, but the famous tearoom restaurant fell apart. Efforts to update the place with a plasma TV, a chartreuse paint scheme, chipotle mayo and self-service failed miserably.

Bridget and her husband found a wonderful 1920s bakery case and had it shipped in from San Jose, Calif. It's now the sales counter for the goodies available - the carrot cake and the cookies with brown butter icing.

She is also interested in perhaps re-creating the dishes created by longtime Exchange cooking dynamo Dorothea Wilson - her Charlotte russe desert or the chicken salad and tomato aspic, lemon tarts and homemade rolls - that were signature dishes here in the old days. I wonder: When a cook leaves the kitchen, can her dishes can ever be duplicated precisely the way we remember them?

Bridget also plans to use the restaurant space for private evening parties and as a base for a catering operation.

People don't take the time for lunching out they way they did 20 years ago, but on those days when you need a change, I'd recommend a table by the south-facing Pleasant Street windows for a hour's worth of tea and sanity.

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