Doing What Donna's Does Best

Restaurant Review

Charles Village Location Provides The Expected While Giving Chef Some Free Rein

December 03, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick , Special to The Baltimore Sun

Donna Crivello opened the flagship Donna's Coffee Bar in Mount Vernon back in 1993.

Today, Donna's is widely credited with having introduced many Baltimoreans to, among other things, salad greens not named iceberg and romaine, the practice of dipping bread in olive oil and the wonderful things that happen to vegetables when you roast them. Back a few years ago, when you couldn't swing a cat in three counties without knocking over a cup of Donna's coffee, a commonplace remark was that the empire had grown too big.

Even before the economy started shrinking, Donna's scaled itself back to one weekday caf? on the campus of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and four full-time restaurants - the original in Mount Vernon, and satellites in Columbia, the Village of Cross Keys and Charles Village. Although they share the classic Donna's lunch menu of salads and sandwiches, the various Donna's kitchens appear to operate more autonomously than they used to, and the chef at each one has been given room to explore; at least that's the impression the public gets.

The kitchen in Charles Village is under the care of Andy Thomas, who has managed the nice trick of introducing his own interests while still speaking Donna's language. Some of his contributions show up on the regular menu at Charles Village, which lists "Andy's Bolognese" (It's "Momma's Bolognese" in Mount Vernon), but more so on the specials page, which has for a long time been following seasonal produce, usually with pleasurable results.

These days, that means small plates of Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and cauliflower. The sprouts and the chard are treated pretty much the same - saut?ed quickly in olive oil with modest amounts of garlic and chilies. It's nice, these days, not to have pork or bacon pulling overtime on a vegetable plate, and if the preparation of one was a little too much like the other, the bubbly hot cauliflower gratin was a distinct departure, relying as much on the vegetable's ability to hold on to butter and cheese as on its inherent flavor. There's something to be said for big, fat, buttery flavor.

You could make a nice meal out of a few of these small plates and a soup or a pizza. I think that's what a lot of regulars must do. We were almost full after just the small plates and bread. The regular menu's entrees number about seven: a few pastas, a herb-and-walnut encrusted chicken breast, grilled salmon and a lamb burger. It's a selection that borders on under-stimulating, and if I came here all the time, I'd really start wishing they had a steak. On the other hand, this lineup might be perfect for this location.

I liked the lamb burger, served with a dill aioli. Our server recommended topping it with feta or gorgonzola, and bleu cheese ended up working very well with the lamb, a case of strong complementary flavors. But a Sicilian pasta entr?e, penne with eggplant, peppers, olives, and capers, was curiously flat, and it's hard to know why, with all of those zesty ingredients. It could be that this is a vegetarian version of a dish that traditionally would have used anchovy to enhance the flavor.

A few years ago, this Donna's underwent a very smart renovation that softened up its industrial design. A glass of wine feels right here, but there's also seating up front for people coming in for a coffee and a quick bite. Donna's is a good looking, efficiently managed, seven-day caf?, and when you stop to think about it, there aren't more than a few other places in its category, much less places that do so much so well.

On the menu

* Sauteed Brussels sprouts - $6

* Sauteed Swiss chard - $6

* Cheddar cauliflower gratin - $6

* Sicilian pasta - $13.95

* Grilled lamb burger - $13.95

Donna's

Where: : 3101 St. Paul St., Charles Village

Contact: : 410-889-3410

Hours: : 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards: : MC, VISA, AMEX

Appetizers:: $3.50-$7.95

Entrees:: $9.95-$17.95

Food:: *** ( 3 STARS)

Service:: *** ( 3 STARS)

Atmosphere:: *** ( 3 STARS)

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

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