Omar Semidey likes to cook, and he also likes to think. At his new Harbor East/Little Italy restaurant, By Degrees Cafe, both talents are on display.
Before moving to Baltimore three and a half years ago, Semidey, a New York native, attended the French Culinary Institute and worked at several Manhattan restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern. After arriving in Charm City, he bolstered his resume with stints at local favorites The Wine Market, Wit & Wisdom and Fleet Street Kitchen.
All of that adds up to serious chops in the kitchen. At By Degrees Cafe — where, he explains, he adds interest to familiar foods by altering them "by degrees" — Semidey turns his talents to casual fare. The results, which are amplified by a knowledgeable wait staff, are impressive, with only a few missteps.
Scene & Decor By Degrees' Central Avenue location, straddling the border between Little Italy and Harbor East, lends itself to daytime traffic. When we visited, the crowds hadn't yet found By Degrees; we were the only diners for most of the evening, making the space's high ceilings and big windows feel even more cavernous.
That will likely change, though. Business along that stretch of road is picking up in the evenings and By Degrees is good enough to draw a crowd for lunch, dinner and carry-out.
Appetizers We started with a deceptively simple cup of caramelized onion and apple soup topped with a swirl of ginger-infused cream ($4.25). The soup was initially sweet, from the onions, with a tangy apple finish and a thick, smooth texture. It was a lovely, balanced and seasonal combination.
Entrees Though satisfying, entrees weren't as much of an unqualified home run as the soup. A creamy dish of rigatoni in cheese sauce ($12.50) was a rich take on the standard comfort food mac and cheese. A sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs added texture and a bit of heat in the sauce gave the dish grown-up flair.
However, a smattering of peas mixed into the sauce wasn't quite enough. They were a thoughtful addition, but their sweet flavor and tender texture were buried under the cheese.
The slow-braised beef entree ($17) was less remarkable for the meat — which was well-seasoned but a tad dry — than for its two side dishes: bacon-horseradish potato salad and a cold salad of shaved Brussels sprouts.
The potato salad had satisfying bite and enough bacon to make it hearty and salty. The Brussels sprout concoction, shaved sprouts tossed with golden raisins, almonds, apples and creamy dressing, was an intriguing way to use the trendy vegetable — and positively addictive.
Drinks By Degrees' short wine and beer lists weren't full of surprises, but a glass of fruity Septima Malbec from Argentina ($7.50) and a Brooklyn Pilsner ($6) were easy to drink, and acceptable matches for the food.
Dessert Even if you are stuffed at the end of your meal, do not skip dessert at By Degrees. Semidey is not, specifically, a pastry chef but his chocolate mousse ($5), made with olive oil and flecked with sea salt, is worthy of a four-star dessert menu. Its flavor was rich and complex with the smooth, nutty taste of almonds balancing the chocolate. Semidey admits he spent hours perfecting the gorgeous dessert.
A cookie ice cream sandwich ($5) was less spectacular but still enjoyable and satisfying.
Service When a waiter has only one table, that can go a few different ways — there's a lot of room between ignoring and hovering — but it's usually not a good thing. At By Degrees, our waiter avoided all the common mistakes, playing the situation exactly right.
He kept an eye on us from across the room, so we had something whenever we needed it, but he was subtle enough about it that we never felt watched. That's skill.
He was also obviously well-acquainted with the menu, asking specific questions ("Did you enjoy the soup? Was the onion too forward on your tongue?"), and actively listening to our answers.
That kind of care is consistent with Semidey's approach to the food. At By Degrees, they care about the food and about whether their guests enjoy it. It might have been quiet during our visit but with that attitude, it won't be for long.
By Degrees Cafe
Back story: After attending the French Culinary Institute and paying dues in famous kitchens in New York (Gramercy Tavern) and Baltimore (Wine Market, Wit & Wisdom, Fleet Street Kitchen), in mid-October, Omar Semidey opened up a place of his own. By Degrees Cafe, on the border between Little Italy and Harbor East, serves capably prepared and thoughtful casual-comfort food.
Parking: Lot with reserved spaces on Central Avenue; street parking or parking garage
Signature dish: Don't skip dessert at By Degrees. The chocolate mousse, made with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and almonds, is beautiful, with seductive, sophisticated flavor.
Where: 415 South Central Avenue, Baltimore
Contact: 410-522-0478; bydegreescafe.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Credit Cards: All major except American Express
Reservations: Not accepted but large groups can call ahead
Bottom line: Thoughtful service and well-conceived food in an approachable, casual setting