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Artifact Coffee, by night, mellows into its glory

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Artifact Coffee, Amy and Spike Gjerdes' follow-up to their acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen, has been growing on me.

In the span of eight days, I had two of my favorite restaurant entrees of the past year at Artifact Coffee. The first night was a 12-hour braised pork shoulder with rigatoni, tossed with roasted turnips in a pesto made from sharp-flavored ramps, the early spring vegetable sometimes called wild garlic. Another night was a sublime stew of chicken, carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi bathed in red wine.

Both entrees were the centerpiece of a $25 fixed-price dinner menu, and each was the only dinner option, more or less, on the nights we dined at Artifact Coffee. Each was prepared and brought to the table in a Staub enameled cast-iron pot. Diners help themselves from the pot. A Staub pot is a beautiful thing, and the longer food rests in it, the better. The chicken stew got winier and richer the further down you went until it made you kind of wild.

Ben Lambert is the executive chef at Artifact. He knows how to work, in or out of a pot.

One week, the first course was a forceful potato soup with bacon, infused with a chive pesto and garnished with strings of pickled cabbage. Next week was a pretty caramelized onion tart. Dessert could be an apple butter spice cake with toffee crumble or a bread pudding with brandied butter and candied pecans. They look wholesome but satisfy fully.

Artifact Coffee opened last June, but dinner service was added only in December. Each dinner is a different thing, but it's only that thing — a Hobson's choice.

Over time, though, there's great variety. The menu is posted each week on the restaurant's website and on its Facebook page, where you can look over some of the past offerings. The new menu is posted every Tuesday: dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday.

In late January, there was New England clam chowder and Yankee pot roast. In February, a first course of chicken and waffles was followed by roast chicken breast and confit thigh. At least twice there have been vegetarian dinners, one built around a vegetable pot au feu with oat dumplings, root vegetables and onion broth.

And there is always the option, if you just plain don't want the fixed menu, of a hamburger or a bacon cheeseburger.

It's not that you won't be accommodated if you want, say, a gluten-free option. The opposite is true.

It's not so hard when a kitchen thinks ahead and cares. A caramelized onion and mushroom tart is easy to make gluten-free when the "tart" is just a simple, and delicious, slice of pastry dough — a pate brisee — that serves as the base for a layering of onions, mushrooms, pickled kohlrabi and microgreens. For a gluten-free request, the same ingredients were worked into a salad with beautiful roasted beets.

It mattered, somehow, that the alternative dish, was different but the same.

That said, if you're a vegetarian and the dinner of the week is pork roast, you might be better off waiting until another vegetarian week comes along. Frankly, that's OK with me, and it seems to be OK, too, with Artifact Coffee.

A little swagger suits Artifact well. It's Artifact's pious look that's not so attractive, and when it opened, Artifact was pious all the time. There was something self-conscious about the food, atmosphere and service that made you want to put a spoke in its wheel.

The chestnut bar, reclaimed silo doors, cast concrete countertops, hand-built farm table, salvaged light fixtures, shelves groaning with pickled provender were just a little perfect, and it seemed to make the staff act silly, as if they were in a movie about a beautiful cafe.

Even then, I guessed that things would mellow out, and they have.

And on recent visits for lunch, the options seem more full-blooded and engaging. The daytime scene at Artifact can be frantic, but dinner is a dream. Instead of ordering at the counter, diners are taken care of by servers. Dinner is walk-in only, on a first-come, first-served basis. For now, Artifact Coffee is also BYOB, but that may change.

With the dining room half-full, dinner is a pleasure. Your server has time to tell you about verjus, a juice made from unripened grapes that substitutes, very well, for lemon juice in the chicken stew.

Artifact Coffee — where the coffee, by the way, is superb — is my new best dinnertime friend.

Artifact Coffee

Rating: ****

Where: 1500 Union Ave., Hampden

Contact: 410-235-1881, artifactcoffee.com

Open: Daily for breakfast and lunch and Wednesday through Sunday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers $4 -$10 ; entrees $7 -$13

Food: Hearty and simple farm-to-table, served family style.

Service: Extremely well informed, courteous and unobtrusive.

Best dishes: The dinner menu changes weekly.

Parking: Free parking on an adjacent lot.

Children: More options for breakfast and lunch, but non-finicky children will be fine.

Noise level: Very comfortable with good music playing at manageable levels.

Dietary considerations: Very accommodating, but planning ahead helps.

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising:*]


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