Dining for $25 or less: Grill Art Cafe

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Grill Art Cafe is Hampden's little restaurant that could. The early days at this handsome cafe were awfully rough, with service problems enduring well past the grace period most diners extend to a new restaurant. Grill Art has hung in there, though - going on five years now - and it's evolved into a very decent dining option. Operating out of the spotlight has probably helped, and hard work definitely hasn't hurt - Grill Art serves lunch, or brunch, and dinner seven days a week. My guess is that people started rediscovering Grill Art when their first choice on the Avenue was booked. If so, good for Grill Art for making its own luck.

From opening day, Grill Art was a pretty place, with the good looks of a contemporary gallery. The dining room is narrow and sleek but given warmth by a spot-on lighting scheme and alternating brick and cool-cucumber-painted side walls. It looks even better than I remembered, mellower maybe.

On a recent Tuesday night, Grill Art was impressively busy, with book-reading single diners, couples and a graduation party of 10. Only one waiter was working that night, and that big party had me nervous - I thought we were in for it. But the table service and the kitchen's timing were right on target. It's rare for a restaurant with the kind of bad-service reputation that Grill Art had to fix itself (the opposite thing happens all the time), so I hope this change is for real.

The regular menu lists the restaurant's everyday sandwiches, quesadillas, salads and three-cheese pizzas. Most of it is what you'd expect to find at a good museum or wine-market restaurant - a spinach pear salad with gorgonzola, an avocado BLT, and a rare tuna sandwich with mango salsa and sliced avocado. Among some standard cheese and meat offerings, one of the pizzas here caught our eye. The fruit and nut pie layers thinly sliced almonds, grilled pears and gorgonzola on a pesto-brushed crust. This was a treat, and the dense, savory crust was especially enjoyable.

Grill Art has a separate dinner menu of appetizers and entrees, about eight each. It's nice to see appetizers that are scaled down, little things to wake up your palate without filling you up. The kitchen does a good job with them - fresh asparagus wrapped with gorgonzola in baked puff pastry is an elegant take on the pig in a blanket. Eggplant "caviar" is a tasty paste of eggplant, garlic, shallots and capers, served on toast rounds and with marinated red pepper strips and a block of creamy feta cheese. Shrimp Thai is a winning presentation of perfectly cooked shrimp in a surprisingly spicy tomato sauce, a tingly mix of brown-sugar sweetness and red-pepper heat, tricked out with fresh basil leaves.

Something else nice: Three out of the eight entrees listed were vegetarian - a tortellini toss ($12.95), an eggplant napoleon and wild-mushroom ravioli. The ravioli is available with either a sun-dried tomato cream sauce or the house's fresh tomato sauce, which we tried and liked. The pasta was firm, the mushroom filling robust.

The two fully plated entrees we tried - a fresh grilled salmon and a special, cornbread-stuffed chicken - were not entirely successful but still good. Colorful grilled vegetables elevate the presentations here, but too much plain white basmati rice brings them back down.

Diners can get hot, ice and even frozen coffee drinks from Grill Art Cafe's coffee bar, which looks like a sweet place to visit anytime. Desserts are homemade and modest, such as fresh mixed berries in a custard cream, which was simple and good. This could be an inspirational comeback story if Grill Art Cafe keeps chugging uphill. I think it can.

On the menu•Asparagus wrapped with gorgonzola in baked puff pastry ($4.95)

•Eggplant "caviar" ($3.95)

•Spinach pear salad with gorgonzola ($7.95)

•Fresh grilled salmon ($15.95)

•Cornbread-stuffed chicken ($10.95)

•Fresh mixed berries in a custard cream ($4.95)

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