The garish primary school-mural motif greets you at the top of the wheelchair-accessible entryway that slopes down into and festoons the far more serious countenance of the dining room. There, the mingling primary colors, industrial ceiling fixtures, polished marble and sleek hardwood, defies pat description.
The patron brought up on Wine Spectator might critique The Dogwood's dining room as "a mixed metaphor with scattered touches of elegance enhanced by a comfortable and classy finish." The diner reared on marble front steps and painted screens might say, "It's like you invited your arts and interior-design pals to turn out an upscale finished basement, and be sure to bring the kids." The place feels like an experiment. Since this is Hampden, petri dish of old Baltimore, kitschy self-awareness and hipster ascendency, owners Galen and Bridget Sampson certainly picked an appropriate lab for their "social business."
12:29 p.m. Our tea arrives within three minutes of our entering and taking our seats. The glasses are tall, slender and gently fluted. A pair of lemon wedges perch like canaries on the rims. I am unaccustomed to two lemon wedges per glass of tea. (Rube? Yeah, whatever.)
Our server briefs us on the specials, a squash soup and penne pasta with grilled chicken. And I'm intrigued. Not by the specials, but by our server. I get this strong vibe that we're in her place, that she likes it here and that she's confident we will, too. She reminds us how pivotal a server's attitude can be to successful dining.
Looking over the menu, we find sandwiches and wraps at $7.50-$11 and lunch entrees at $11-$20 with a crab cake outlier at $27.
12:40 p.m. We order starters and entrees. For the main course, I pick the Galen Burger ($14) with bleu cheese, bacon and sauteed onions. My dining companion ordered the Cobb salad with fried buttermilk chicken for $20.
12:50 p.m. Our starters arrive. We tuck into the choux puffs first. I would have added twice the gruyere and twice the thyme, and I would have been embarrassingly, ham-fistedly wrong. Instead, suggestions of each adorned and showcased the delicate pastry. We also got the slow-roasted jumbo garlic bulb, which struck us as a brilliantly simple treat, but also drew a rant from my friend. The garlic was served with a nice olive oil and cracked pepper … and dry, lifeless bread rounds. Neither of us mentioned the bread during the meal. But afterward, on the street, we wondered, not for the first time, how a kitchen so obviously careful and capable could overlook such an important staple.
1:09 p.m. Our entrees arrive, and my friend's atypical but serviceable Cobb salad came perfectly dressed. It neatly supported the crunchy-crusted tender fried chicken, whose free-rangedness must be the reason for its otherwise curious kingly price.
My boldly thick burger, on the other hand, with its fruity grilled mushrooms and onions, tangy sprinkle of bleu cheese and light, supple bread induced infatuation at first bite — despite the fact that I asked for medium-rare and got well-done. Oh yes, that pedestaled pet among culinary peeves dogged the enjoyment of every last mouthful and loomed larger here than it might at a lesser venue. Like the dry bread, we wrote it off as a gustatory typo.
1:30 p.m. We finish a meal marked by overwhelming satisfactions that only served to magnify otherwise minor vexations. (Granted, for $14, well-done rather than medium-rare might be considered a major vexation, but all of the burger's remaining qualities made it the best overcooked ground beef sandwich in recent memory.)
1:39 p.m. We pay and leave with metaphysical doggie bags full of rants and raves. The Dogwood's few flaws stood out against an otherwise panoramic competence. Our server made us feel smart and at ease, and she deserves a glowing review of her own. At 70 minutes, it was a long lunch that could have been shortened by eschewing appetizers.
Where: 911 W. 36th St.
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Lunch entrees: $7.50-$20
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 70 minutes