When I went back to check, I was surprised to find out that it's been nine years since I last reviewed Sascha's 527 Cafe in Mount Vernon.
Because it's close to The Sun, this has been a place I occasionally go for lunch when I'm meeting someone outside the office. By day, Sascha's, located on the first floor of a 19th-century Mount Vernon town house, is set up to provide a quick lunch of good food cafeteria style.
At night, like a scene change at the theater, the place becomes a sit-down, not-quite-fine-dining restaurant. As you enter past a claret velvet curtain, you first notice an ornate chandelier hanging from the 16-foot ceiling and then lofty marbleized columns. The sparkling chandelier, fairy lights and candles give the persimmon and gold color scheme a warm glow. In this light, the large canvases hanging on those walls look as if they belong in a museum.
Do the food and service live up to the setting? Well, yes and no. Most of our dishes arrived just a bit warmer than room temperature, and for that I think I have to blame the servers, not the kitchen. These aren't career waiters - if I had to guess, I would say they're students working their way through school. We had long waits before we got anyone's attention, and the people at the table next to us, who sat down after us, got waited on first - a kiss of death, as far as I'm concerned.
On the other hand, the wait staff seemed to be working hard and were very personable, two big pluses in my book.
Sascha's is the baby of Sascha Wolhandler, one of Baltimore's best-known caterers and restaurateurs, who started here with an outdoor creperie on North Charles Street in the '70s. I've always liked her food, which is entertaining and usually very good. I didn't see her around that night, so I have no idea if she was in the kitchen; but she's the guiding force behind the quirky global cafe menu.
It ranges from a Southwestern turkey burger for $9 to filet mignon with a dried-cherry demi-glace for $24. The menu is short on appetizers, but long on "taste plates." Unlike at some restaurants, the latter are more than a prelude to the main course. A couple of them can make a meal if you aren't too hungry.
The best of the taste plates is probably the large shrimp, gently charred, with creamy cheese grits and andouille sausage. The mini Baja tacos suffered from not being warm enough. The bites of fried red snapper were a little chewy, but the toppings of avocado, diced tomato and creme fraiche sparked with cilantro saved them.
If you aren't trying to eat healthily, you can throw caution to the wind and share the salty, greasy-in-a-good-way Fries in a Cone with your table-mates as a first course. What set these slender skin-on fries apart are two sauces: creme fraiche flavored with Old Bay and a fiery Moroccan barbecue sauce for dipping. The fries would have been even better hotter.
At least the decadent seafood bisque, thick with cream, arrived blazingly hot. I guess if we could have only one dish not lukewarm, I would have wanted it to be this one.
As I said, the menu is short on traditional appetizers. The only one labeled as such was on the specials menu, mussels in a coconut milk and curry sauce, with Kaffir lime leaves adding a floral note. The good, plump mussels swim in a fragrant broth.
When you decide to make a meal with a couple of the taste plates, you'll also get salty, cheesy, savory pastry twists that serve as bread. The little bowl of olives that comes gratis is a nice touch, too. That would be the economical way to go, but entrees here, all under $25, won't break the bank either. The wine list is equally affordable, with a cafe feel to it.
I wouldn't be surprised if the bison short ribs disappear from the menu soon. They are a wintry dish, so get them while you can. The kitchen braises the ribs and bathes them in a dark, rich sauce, which takes care of any dryness problem. Parsnip puree and red cabbage are on the side.
A wild mushroom "baklava," on the other hand, is light enough to continue through the spring. Phyllo is layered with mushrooms, greens and walnuts, with just a touch of sweetness. Interesting, but I wouldn't choose it over the handsome divers scallops, fat and ivory white, simply flavored with a hint of citrus and served with potato hash and ratatouille.
All economies may go out the window when you're faced with the dessert selection. Sascha's has its own pastry chef because of the catering business. The menu brags that the carrot cake is the best in town, and I defy you to come up with a better one. It's an enormous, moist slice with a cream cheese frosting that has flavor as well as sugar. Not enough calories for you? For some reason, it's garnished with whipped cream.
The tropical bread pudding is equally seductive and more unusual. The bread is soaked in a mango custard. Dried fruit, almonds and coconut add texture and flavor, with a rum-flavored creme anglaise making it even richer.
They both outshine the chocolate orange truffle cake, unless you are a chocolate fanatic. The chocolate is so dense the orange marmalade layer and Grand Marnier flavor are pretty much overwhelmed.
Sascha's 527 Cafe doesn't get much press these days. It's been around a while, and there are trendier places to see and be seen. But over the years it has delivered interesting, good, affordable cuisine with a lot of flair. That's what it's still doing.
Address: 527 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner only Saturday
Prices: Taste plates: $5-$12, entrees: $15-$24
Food: *** ( 3 STARS)
Service: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** ( 3 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]