Hard To Find, But Worth A Look

Restaurant Review

Cafe Azafran Shows Workers Needn't Suffer Through Lunch

February 04, 2010|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Cafe Azafran is located on the entrance level of the Space Telescope Science Institute, where it acts as a de facto employee eating facility but has gained a following that extends to the Johns Hopkins Homewood community and beyond.

Because of its obscure location and because it's open only on weekdays for breakfast and lunch, there's a good chance you might never make it there. I hope you'll want to hear about it anyway, especially if you work someplace where the lunch options are a colossal joke, because Cafe Azafran proves what you've always suspected - you've been suffering for no reason. It turns out that it is possible for employees to enjoy reasonably priced, tasty and wholesome food served by a pleasant and efficient staff in an attractive and positive environment, right in their own building.

The seating is all within one long rectangular space, the kind of setup that elsewhere gets depressing. Here, it isn't. The wall of windows looking out onto Wyman Park is a big plus, and so are the fresh flowers, cheerful orange color scheme and the artful deployment of intimate and communal seating options. It's a space that would work just as well for quiet study in the hours before it fills up for lunch. It has a nice personality, and I suspect it comes from Irena Stein, the ebullient powerhouse who operates the cafe and its affiliated catering business.

The menu here is smaller than I had thought it would be. And maybe that's part of what makes the food turn out so well. It seems like good business sense, too. When we visited, there were about a dozen hot and cold sandwiches to choose from, a few more soups and entree salads. Most of these were permanent menu items, but a few were featured as new additions. I believe more and more that the less a restaurant tries to please everybody, the more people it pleases.

You order at a counter here - a little hard for newcomers to find and figure out - and your food is prepared freshly and quickly. This makes hot-sandwich options very attractive, and I was very taken with a grilled Gruyere sandwich on country white bread, one of the new additions, and a salsa-topped version of the cafe's hamburger (available on Monday and Friday only). The good bread here is from Atwaters, and that makes a big difference.

A BLT didn't come off as impressively, I think, because we've become so used to sandwiches with more bacon, more thickly sliced. On the other hand, a flank steak sandwich, dressed with avocado and aioli, was just as good as can be. And you think: Why can't everyone buy good meat, season it, cook it well and put it on good bread? The burger came with shoestring fries, and the other sandwiches with a hand-dressed green salad.

We tried the two daily soups, a macaroni and cheese soup, which just didn't go far enough into the comfort zone, and then a French-kitchen fish soup with vegetables. These soups came out after the sandwiches, which, for some reason, seemed perfectly natural. Dessert is limited to things like fresh fruit salads and a few baked treats.

I don't want to oversell Cafe Azafran, whose major asset is simply being a nice place to get a good lunch. But you shouldn't play hooky to come here. And even if you have your days free, Cafe Azafran is a little hard to access. Metered parking is just far enough away to make you think twice about a winter visit. There is virtually no signage to guide you into the building, or to the cafe once you're inside. I had to convince my friends that it existed. But it does, and it's good.

Cafe Azafran

Where: : 3700 San Martin Drive

Contact: : 410-338-4757

Hours: : Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Credit cards: : Master Card, Visa, AMEX

Appetizers: : $4.25-$8.75

Entrees: : $6-$9

Food: : *** (3 stars)

Service: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

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

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

On the menu

* BLT - $8.50

* Bloody Mary burger - $7.75

* Flank steak - $9

* Mac & cheese soup - $4.25

* Fish soup - $4.25

* Grilled Gruyere - $7.50

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