12:34 p.m. We walk in and while a sign indicates we could seat ourselves, a staffer behind the bar said someone would be right with us. Uncertain how to interpret the mixed signals, we hang out in Clementine's parlor-looking entrance where I am tempted to have a seat on one of its comfy black leather sofas.
12:44 p.m. We order. I pass on the sloppy joe and grilled cheese because they seem just too simple and, I don't know, normal. Knowing then what I know now, I still would have ordered the chicken sandwich, but I'd have figured out an excuse for treating the sloppy joe as a starter. I'd really like to know what Clementine does to that most common comfort-food standby.
I didn't notice the time passing because I was busy running my mouth regarding one of my many brilliant ideas. But time did pass — 27 minutes of it between when we ordered and when we were served.
1:11 p.m. Our server sets down what looks pretty much like two plates of sandwiches with sides. The asparagus sticking out the chocolate-brown bread of my friend's sandwich is the only visual hint of dramatic variation on a theme. Otherwise it looks like a smoked bacon sandwich. Actually, his Moroccan carrot salad wasn't what I expected visually either. I thought shredded carrot. The sandwich proved as delicious as it was inventive, but the carrot salad got us talking. Cut into disks rather than grated, and cooked to al dente and painted with a creamy dressing whose mystery ingredient my dining companion was first to identify. Dang. Cardamom. Good.
My pasta salad side was admirable enough that I took home what I didn't finish at our table. The chicken sandwich, on the other hand, I didn't even offer to share. In truth, before arriving I had my heart set on Clementine's charcuterie and never thought to check to see if it's served for lunch. It's not, yet. Thankfully, the sandwich unbroke my heart. The layer of guacamole was nice over the silky tender chicken, but the bleu cheese mayo teased this concoction into four-star territory. All this for a comfortable $8.25.
1:37 p.m. We take the meal as far as we can. In one sense, Clementine does what you'd demand of any fine-dining kitchen, clever invention, unanticipated flavor combos in carefully balanced proportion, high-quality ingredients, attention to each ingredient. But Clementine does it at a comfort food price.
1:43 p.m. Oh, my goodness, look at the time. During our visit, our server moves quickly between tables and back and forth from the kitchen, but she never rushes us or appears hurried or distracted when she is stopped at our table, which is good. Our libations are kept well stocked, and we are too busy talking business and food to pay attention to time. But in looking back, we note two stretches that sank our in-and-out-in-an-hour goal.
Clementine gave us an experience we placed on our personal four-star lunch list. But professionally, judging by our one visit, I obviously cannot declare that you can do lunch at Clementine in under an hour. I suspect you can and would most days. But I can say this with certainty: Based on our one visit, if you're sure you'll get in trouble for getting back late from lunch, Clementine is worth the risk.
Where: 5402 Harford Road
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Lunch entrees: $7-$8.25
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 69 minutes