Spoons

Croque-Madame at Spoons in Federal Hill features proscuitto, gruyere, bechamel sauce and fried egg. Special to the Sun / Colby Ware No Mags, No Sales, No Internet, No TV (Colby Ware, Baltimore Sun / March 15, 2012)

On a recent, unseasonably warm Thursday night, Federal Hill was jumping with people out on dates — out for happy hour, out for dinner. But Spoons, the laid-back coffee shop that's been a Cross Street fixture since 1999, was quiet, with just a few tables filled.

With a menu featuring an intriguingly global mix of comfort foods and service that's friendly and prompt, Spoons is worthy of a little more bustle at dinner time. But, please, not too much more bustle.

When the restaurant's owners, Shane Anderson, John Allen, Bernard Kayes and Deborah Cogan, decided last fall to add dinner to Spoons' repertoire, they recognized that the mellow atmosphere offered a welcome alternative to many of Federal Hill's more manic spots. They're right about that. Exposed brick walls, funky art and charming wood furniture give Spoons a vibe that's urban but hushed. It's a place to sit and talk, not shout over a blaring TV.

Spoons' beverage license doesn't cover liquor, but we didn't miss it, thanks to a smart selection of both beer and wine. Our waiter (a dead ringer for Matt Damon) greeted us by listing the beers on tap — a constantly evolving selection. We started with a wheaty and light Allagash White ale ($4) and a spicy glass of Durigutti Malbec ($7.50) off the short but varied wine list.

The menu is a little longer, but equally diverse — an international greatest hits of comfort food, covering everything from steak frites to huevos verdes. The four owners, who take turns behind the stove, designed the menu to suit their own culinary preferences. According to Cogan, they weren't interested in sticking with one specific cuisine — they just wanted to serve food they liked. Fortunately, they have good taste.

We started with the duck confit and kimchi dumplings ($8), served with a sweet and salty combination of soy sauce and the Japanese rice wine, mirin. Dipped in it, the dumplings were pleasantly chewy, with a sweet and savory flavor. We wished, though, that the dumpling filling itself was a little more powerful — it lacked the fire of great kimchi and the fattiness of duck confit, either of which would have elevated the dish from so-so to special.

Our entrees were more successful. The spaghetti and meatballs ($12) was just as advertised — a big bowl of spaghetti, topped with red gravy and several meatballs and served with a hunk of crusty bread. The sauce, a standard marinara, provided a bright, tomato base for the meatballs, a well-seasoned and moist combination of pork, veal and beef. There were no surprises in the dish, but its tasty familiarity was welcome.

The spaghetti was enjoyable, but the Croque Madame ($11), one of France'sgreat comfort foods, was the star of the evening. Thick slices of bread, stuffed with salty prosciutto and nutty Gruyere and drenched in bechamel sauce, were savory and satisfying. The fried egg on top, cooked until it had just set, made the sandwich downright luxurious.

The Croque Madame was definitely not diet food, so we doubled down, substituting sweet potato fries for the salad or chips usually served with sandwiches (an additional $2). The sweet and crunchy fries came with a sriracha-lime sauce that had a surprisingly good balance of cream, acid and heat. The fries were good on their own, but with the sauce, they were top-notch.

Spoons made its reputation as a coffee shop; the coffee they serve is roasted upstairs. Our after-dinner cups were fresh and strong, but not overpowering, making a great match for comfort food, dessert-style — a sophisticated bread pudding ($6), topped with rum-soaked raisins in a sweet sauce.

During dinner, the restaurant stayed quiet, with a few small tables drifting in and out, but no large groups or loud voices. The tenor of our waiter and the chef, who we could spy through the large window connecting the kitchen and the dining room, matched the overall vibe — calm and laid-back, but on top of things. Our dinner was unhurried, but correctly paced, and when we needed a new drink or more water, we got it right away.

We enjoyed the solitude and the general hush about the place, but a little more company would have been welcome. By creating a space and a menu that reflects their personal tastes, Spoons' owners have done a good job helping their coffee shop grow up into a full-fledged restaurant — one that fills a very real, if quiet, need among the hot spots in Federal Hill.

Spoons

Back-story: Spoons, which has been a coffee shop staple in Federal Hill since the late 1990s, started dinner service last fall, with a menu including comfort foods from around the world

Parking: There is some street parking and also a garage at 40 E. West St.

Signature dish: The Croque Madame, a grilled sandwich of prosciutto and gruyere, dipped in bechamel sauce and topped with a fried egg, is rich, savory and comforting, with a touch of international flair

Where: 24 E. Cross St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-539-8395, spoonsbaltimore.com

Open: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7 a.m.-1 a.m. (Upstairs only from 9 p.m.-1 a.m.) Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday

Credit Cards: All major

Food: ***
Service: ***
Atmosphere: ***
[Key: Excellent: ****; Good: ***; Uneven: **; Poor: *]