City Cafe is the little coffee shop that could. After 22 years, the Mount Vernon staple has blossomed into a full-fledged restaurant with lunch, brunch and dinner menus served in a sleek, contemporary space.
An espresso machine at the end of a new marble bar is a remaining nod to its early brew-house days.
Diners can still get frothy espressos with their meals, but for several years, a chef has orchestrated the New American cuisine coming out of the kitchen — a step up from the original bagels and sandwiches.
On our visit, we could still see the imprint of City Cafe's first chef in 2009, Chad Gauss, who now runs The Food Market in Hampden and the new La Food Marketa in Quarry Lake. He left behind dishes like spaghetti and crab balls and the Baltimore club sandwich.
James Jennings — a Food Market alumnus and formerly a sous chef with the Michael Mina restaurant group in San Francisco — is City Cafe's new executive chef.
Jennings is in a strategic position as City Cafe owners Gino Cardinale and Bruce Bodie take over Tark's Grill in Brooklandville. They will be introducing City Cafe's menu this month to a Baltimore County audience.
When we stepped into City Cafe recently, we didn't realize we would be previewing food for both restaurants. Suburbanites are in for a treat. Urban dwellers know about the cafe's charms.
Appetizers are divided into two groups: finger foods and first bites. From the former category, our party of four just about polished off the giant pile of meatless nachos. The layered ingredients — salsa verde, pepper jack cheese sauce, salsa, guacamole and sour cream — were fresh and flavorful. We really liked the textural addition of fleshy chickpeas cascading down the slope of nachos.
The General James lobster nugs were another dish to share. The crispy shards of lobster tail were quite good, especially when dipped into Major James' chutney, the chef's take on a popular brand of mango chutney. Drops of hot sauce on the plate punched up the golf ball-size nuggets.
Other successful beginners were the warm brie flatbread, with crisp apple slices, arugula, chili flakes and balsamic vinegar, and the truffle and porcini ravioli in Madeira cream with toasted Parmesan cheese and aromatic fried sage.
Our server was top-notch, expertly delivering drinks and food. When we alerted her to our rocking table, she fixed it in the blink of an eye.
You'll find an assortment of inventive and traditional cocktails, a great wine list and an array of beer choices. When we ordered a riesling, our waitress made sure to describe the degree of sweetness for each one.
She also assured us that it was no problem to add a half-shot of elderflower liqueur to a gin and tonic. Try it. It's a delicious drink.
We liked our entrees, though there are a few caveats.
For instance, the shrimp and chipotle grits took the Southern classic to a fiery level that could overwhelm some palates. We were thankful for the soothing roasted peach nestled alongside the mound.
Pairing spaghetti with crab balls is one of those quirky Baltimore combinations that somehow works. The rotund crab balls were stellar. I liked the tomato sauce, which reminded me of an upscale Chef Boyardee gravy. But one of my guests thought it tasted like church-dinner spaghetti.
A standout dish was the juicy bison steak au poivre, heavily dotted with cracked peppercorns and sharing space with a square of potato gratin and asparagus stalks.
The rainbow trout was another winner. The fish, dusted with almond flour and pan-fried, was a beauty. Smothered with crab meat and arugula, it sat on a crunchy bed of quinoa.
Even the anti-peach guy in our group had no complaints about the delicious peach cobbler with almond granola, streusel and vanilla ice cream.
The white chocolate raspberry creme brulee with fresh raspberries was a fine ending, but we were really smitten with James' bread pudding. The brick-shaped loaf was loaded with white, dark and milk chocolate and surrounded by caramel sauce and fresh berries.
With the experienced team of Cardinale, Brodie and Jennings, City Cafe continues to succeed and grow. It bodes well for Tark's Grill.