The type size on City Cafe's menu is too small. Well, that's about it, folks. Everything else this magically restored Mount Vernon institution is doing is whip-smart and spot-on.
Let's be honest: The City Cafe, in the years leading up to its 2009 renovation, had increasingly become known as the place people stopped going to. Now, with an exciting new chef in place, it feels re-energized and refreshed. The staff seems aware that they're playing for a winning team, and their good mood is infectious. I think it's a far better place now than it ever has been.
The new chef is Chad Gauss, and he's been given what looks like free rein. That doesn't always work. But Gauss works both imaginatively and responsibly, displaying as much concern for the standard bistro-fare items as he does his more personally felt dishes.
In practice, this means that City Cafe is going to satisfy a wide range of tastes and expectations, resulting in bigger checks (happy owners) and bigger tips (happy staff) and increased freedom for the chef (happy kitchen) And then all this happiness keeps recycling back from kitchen to staff to your table. Ladies and gentlemen, the creative process.
When one thing works, everything does. Any renovation would have been welcome that produced a more welcoming ambience than the surgery-theater original (which, in fairness, was fine for 1994). But the reality is better. There is now a much clearer division between the cafe and dining operations, which used to blend unproductively with each other.
The dining room, which smoothly incorporates a lounge area, now feels fully considered, with a neutral and calming decor that works effortlessly with the space's industrial dimensions. There is a variety of seating for various tastes — high tables in the lounge, two-tops along the long wall of windows and banquette seating in a newly discovered nook. There remains the always-popular row of outside tables.
The menu is appealing from top to bottom. An elsewhere perfunctory starter like edamame gets dusted with Hawaiian red sea salt, making it both pretty and quickly addictive. This is a true appetizer — it made us hungry for everything. Fried green tomatoes show every sign of having been cooked to order. Crisp and firm, they get topped with snowy white crab meat, sprinkled attractively with chives and shallots, and finished off with a tangy lemon-spiked beurre blanc.
An enthusiastically recommended appetizer of lobster-tail nuggets sounds obnoxious, like something a trick restaurant plays on greedy diners. But, breaded modestly and fried gently and served with a ramekin of piping-hot drawn butter, they're delicious. Freshly debuting on the appetizer menu (it wasn't there two nights earlier on a first visit) are wild boar meatballs, which would be grand served naked, but Gauss dusts them with blueberry powder, drizzles them with marsala cream and sets them, along with a scattering of cashews, on a layer of creamy grits. It's a keeper.
The meal continues with a choice of a dozen entrees and a like number of entree salads and sandwiches. Good things keep coming. A dandy seared tuna entree is smartly composed. The tuna itself, cooked perfectly, persuasively fresh, is handsomely coated with multicolored peppers. A dusting of wasabi powder and a helping of buttery succotash brings summery colors to the plate. A spring roll, stuffed with potatoes and leeks, adds dimension, but the filling's texture is odd and almost off-putting.
A beef tenderloin entrees salad exemplifies Gauss's care for and with a standard dish. It, too, is hand-composed, the strips of espresso-rubbed steak fan-tailed carefully, and the salad is a stimulating mix of sharp arugula, shaved asiago cheese, macadamia nuts and dried cranberries, all tossed gently in a mild raspberry vinaigrette. It sounds busy and fruity, but it's all in perfect balance.
A steak-and-crab cake pairing offers up a perfect little filet mignon and a great-looking crab cake that, too shyly seasoned and borderline mushy, turns out to be the kitchen's least-convincing product. Bathed, a bit too heavily, with rosemary cream and a Madeira sauce, a dish of ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms is unashamedly rich, but the flavors manage to sort themselves out. Added-in shrimp are firm and fresh.
Gauss is credited as the dining room's dessert chef. A trio plate shows off a dense and luscious flourless chocolate cake, a simple and satisfying vanilla creme brulee, and a ridiculously satisfying Heath bar bread pudding, one last sterling example of how balanced and restrained Gauss' hand is. One false move, and this dessert could have made teeth ache. It comes across instead as something sophisticated. That's what I told myself, on a second visit, when I ordered it for dessert all by itself.
I should say that, according to its internal history, the first-ever customer of City Cafe was me. I don't remember when I all-but-stopped going, except if it was to meet my folks, who never stopped relying on it as a pre-concert destination.
Where: 1001 Cathedral St.
Contact: 410-539-4252, citycafebaltimore.com
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]