Baltimore needs more bookstore cafes, and Breathe Bookstore Cafe in Hampden is a good start.
The cafe opened last June, giving Baltimoreans even more reason to visit the much-loved bookshop. Owner Susan Weis-Bohlen, a cooking teacher and expert in Ayurvedic (holistic medicine) cooking, stocks Breathe with dishes and snacks that are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, raw or Ayurvedic and that include no white sugar or flour. Its mission: "To nourish your mind, body and soul."
Breathe's menu fills a vegetarian-friendly niche, but even the staunchest meat lovers should pay attention. For the most part, Breathe's food is as tasty as a burger and fries — and a lot healthier.
Scene & Decor Given its name and mission, we expected Breathe to be minimally decorated in peaceful, cool colors. Instead, we found a hot orange building with a small front room happily crammed full of mismatched furniture, books, spices and other accouterments of the business. Surprisingly, it was more soothing than the room in our imaginations.
Breathe's food is on display inside a glass case and a glass-front refrigerator at the back of the room; the day's selections are described on white boards and signs scattered across the counter.
Somehow we missed the sign explaining how to order so the sweet young woman behind the counter took pity, explaining the uncomplicated process: order and pay at the counter, grab silverware and napkins and someone will deliver the food when it's ready. Everything at Breathe is already prepared — some in-house and some by local vendors — but they reheat their goodies in a conventional oven, not a microwave, so it takes a few minutes.
Drinks Breathe offers a wide array of coffees and teas; as a nod to the warm night, we started with tall glasses of cool, but iceless, flavored tea ($2.50). Black tea flavored with lemon was dark and citrusy and the "mint mojito" option was bright and fresh (though more mint than mojito; we didn't detect any lime).
We took our drinks to a table on the wraparound porch, where a handful of tables and one natural wood counter provided seating.
Appetizer & Entrees Breathe's menu varies every day, but they stick to a core selection of dish types, including quinoa salad, polenta, frittatas and savory tarts. We started with quinoa salad ($6.98), a chilled mix of the light grain, chopped scallions and corn.
Though the scallions added bite and the corn sweetness, overall, the salad was lacking something — a dash of soy sauce plus a handful of mushrooms would have added heft and depth.
A few minutes after we sat, a friendly young man brought us the other two dishes we ordered: pesto polenta ($6.98) and a savory tart ($6.98), both piping hot from the oven.
The tart was a round of firm pastry surrounding a center of roasted peppers and squash. Under the vegetables, a layer of cashew cheese had a flavor that was more sweet than savory.
All together, the tart was balanced, well-seasoned and tasty.
Pesto-topped polenta was similarly appealing. A large, shallow square of polenta — crispy on the outside, creamy in the middle — was slathered with bright basil pesto then scattered with roasted peppers and onions. The dish was lovely — all bright colors and seasonal flavors.
Service After about 10 minutes, the man who brought us our meal stopped to check on us. It was a nice touch, since Breathe is casual enough to get away with no table service at all. The staff at Breathe are welcoming, kind and attentive.
Dessert Before leaving, we hopped back inside to grab something from the dessert case, packed with individually wrapped cookies and bars. We couldn't take our eyes off the raw cacao macaroon ($3.50), a spiky ball of rich chocolate (that's also gluten-free and vegan).
The macaroon was a little more crumbly than the standard sugar-soaked version, but still enjoyable. With a bitter dark chocolate edge, the flavor was decidedly sophisticated.
Bottom Line Sitting with a book on Breathe's friendly front porch, or at a table inside the charming shop, is a calming and happy way to spend an evening. Add a bright and seasonal square of polenta, a glass of tea and a rich macaroon and you may find yourself so relaxed and well-fed that you never want to leave.
Breathe Bookstore Cafe
Back story: In June 2013, Susan Weis-Bohlen added a cafe to her eight-year old Hampden bookshop, Breathe Books. The cafe specializes in dishes that are raw, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or Ayurvedic, furthering the shop's motto, "Nourish your mind, body and soul."
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Breathe's menu varies daily, but the cafe consistently offers similar types of food, such as one quinoa salad, one savory tart and one polenta dish. With plenty of seasoning and fresh ingredients, the pesto polenta was the best of the bunch we tried.
Where: 810 West 36th Street, Baltimore
Contact: 410-235-7323; http://www.breathebooks.com
Open: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Rating: 2.5 stars
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]