The Black Forest is Fresh Fit's take on the ham and cheese… (John Lindner, Baltimore…)
You don't have to be a gym rat to enjoy Fresh Fit. But if you don't work out downtown, you probably haven't heard of this sandwich spot.
Tucked into a corner of the big old building which houses the downtown Merritt Athletic Center, Fresh Fit offers much more than the smoothie stands you find in many gyms. As a standalone restaurant, it works. And, open to non-members, Fresh Fit feels more like a nice sandwich shop that happens to be in a gym rather than merely the corner of a gym where lunch is served.
11:42 Fresh Fit's circular glass tables and happy red, high-back chairs seem vaguely anachronistic — a throwback to the '70s. They look fragile near the painted concrete block that separates the dining area from the cavernous basketball court and running track. But the tables easily seat four and not all offer an unavoidable view of Merritt's massive play room.
12:01 Fresh Fit's menu posts breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., but our server said we could order it late. And though lunch hours formally run from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., she said the kitchen will accommodate later orders.
The lunch menu lists appetizers, soups, salads and sandwiches — few suggested fastidious concern for health. And the chipotle burger, steak pita and Monte Cristo all sound like candidates for Michele Obama's naughty-foods list.
We ordered a Caesar chicken wrap with a side salad for $8 and the Black Forest ham sandwich at $7 with fries that bumped it to $9. Because we stuck with water, our lunch came in at a few pennies over $18 — and price wasn't the best part of the meal.
12:05 Two more tables were seated, giving the dining room a bit less sterile feel. A couple more tables would be seated afterward, and there were always a few people hanging out at the short bar, though we couldn't tell if they were patrons or employees. They didn't seem to be drinking. Fresh Fit serves cocktails, wine and beer till 10 p.m. Happy hour is 4 p.m.-7 p.m.: a cost-efficient way to win back all those calories lost to ellipticals, treadmills and stationary bikes.
12:12 After our server left us with our entrees, we stopped fixating on our surroundings.
The small side salad could have ranked as the high point of the meal. The lush lettuce paired with red onion and candied walnuts, and the whole thing was drenched in dressing. Normally that's a downer, but here, slightly fruity (we guessed pomegranate) tones asserted themselves without overwhelming the other fixings.
If the chicken Caesar wrap acquitted itself pretty much as you'd expect a common salad with grilled chicken to do, its distinction came in taste balance and fresh character of each simple ingredient. The lettuce was crisp, the chicken yielding and mildly spiced and the wrap was robust and chewy.
OK, it was hard not to look down onto the enormous gym floor. Hoopsters were heaving basketballs and an instructor demonstrated various stretching routines while a lone jogger paced the indoor track. An unusual lunchtime view, watching people dehydrate. We felt like we had the best seats in the house.
It's tempting to say the malt vinegar aioli made the black forest ham sandwich. But the same could be said about the Gruyere and the ham — and the bread. I tend to think of the ham and cheese sandwich as gustatory Muzak. Fresh Fit reminds that it needn't be that way. Except for the aioli, the kitchen set aside invention and simply heightened and clarified the quality and character of the individual ingredients. They used a rich ham, more interesting cheese, and great bread. Why don't more places do that?
The fries were light. A bare dusting of paprika on potatoes that felt like they'd been whipped and then baked rather than deep fried, with no trace of earthy potato taste. Loved 'em. Good bar food.
12:35 Judging by this visit, if you have an hour for lunch, you'll have to decide between a workout or a sit-down meal. This isn't fast food. There's free parking on either side of the building. And we weren't sure what it said about Fresh Fit, but during this lunch hour, there were more of us in the dining room than there were of them down on the gym floor.
Where: 210 Centre St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-528-9252, freshfitbaltimore.com
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
Lunch entrées: $7-$9
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]
Dining time: 53 minutes