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In Mount Vernon, Dooby's clicks around the clock

At night, the cafe brings out a small but choice menu

By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

12:57 PM EST, January 3, 2014

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Welcome to Dooby's, which sounds like the worst bar in Key West but which is invested with a great deal of forward-looking style by its owner, Phil Han, whose lifelong nickname is "Dooby."

Dooby's opened in late October and got right to work filling niches in Mount Vernon. Not that there weren't other nearby options, but you know how much difference a few blocks makes in the city. The area around the Washington Monument is its own micro-neighborhood, and it was missing something.

Now, neighborhood residents have somewhere to stumble into for coffee on their way to work. And Mount Vernon's cultural community — the Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Institute are here — has at its doorsteps a cosmopolitan place to meet over sandwiches and salads. And now that Dooby's has stepped up its dinner offerings, folks have another (much needed) place for pre-concert or pre-theater dining.

The cafe-restaurant, as Han prefers to call it, occupies the ground-floor space in Mount Vernon's restored Park Plaza building. You might have fond memories of former restaurants in this space, like the Ruby Lounge and Indigma, but still have trouble matching them up with the reconfigured layout at Dooby's.

At Dooby's, guests enter directly from Charles Street into an uplifting contemporary space that manages to be sophisticated enough for an arts district without being obnoxiously edgy.

To the right is a counter, where guests place orders at breakfast and lunch, and a display case for the cafe's commendable pastries — you should get to know the Gruyere scone. In the center are two community tables with high stools, and there are small seating counters at the front window, at the back and at the barista station.

There is a small upper dining room, partially walled off from the main room, which is more intimate and quiet. By day, students use the space for studying. At night, though, the upper room converts into a proper dining room, with table service.

The dinner menu is still evolving; Han said there will be more choices debuting the first week of January. But when five of us visited, there were four entrees, three starters and three bar snacks.

We wanted everything, we ordered everything, and we liked everything. The dinner menu, brief as it was, covered a world of flavor.

The influences are primarily Asian, but one our favorite dishes was more Mediterranean: a roasted sweet potato and quinoa salad, which was tossed with avocado slices, feta and arugula, and lightly dressed with a tangy tzatziki sauce. And sometimes, the cuisine is everything all at once, like the risotto, served with Dooby's salmon entree, that's flavored with nori, a Japanese seaweed.

Jump right in, really. Your table might want two orders of the pleasantly oily chili-and-salt-coated edamame. And don't pass up the spicy queso dip, which has a dose of good, but manageable peppery heat layered into its mix of cheddar, mozzarella and Gruyere. Even if you're tired of deviled eggs on cafe menus, get Dooby's nifty kung pao version, which deploys a fine sliver of baked chicken skin.

Move on from those snacks to bigger appetizers, terrific Korean-style sticky wings, served with a cool chili-lime dip that cuts through the wings' honey coating, and two versions of Dooby's plump dumplings, adapted from a family recipe, one kind filled with pork and beef, the other with Chinese cabbage and tofu.

Then there's a dandy 7-ounce burger topped with wasabi mayo, and served with a crisp-edged potato hash. Try the salmon fillet, which Dooby's brightens with a miso glaze and mellows out with an accompanying plum sauce, and absolutely get the kimchi fried rice, which you can have with or without chunks of barbecued short rib.

Dessert, made in house, is worth a trip by itself. Get the coconut rice pudding, infused with Thai iced tea syrup, and make a date with the Damn Good Pie, which has a "bruleed" buttermilk filling and a crust made of chocolate cookie crumbles.

Dooby's, when it opened, didn't seem like an obvious dinner destination. It does now. There is a full bar, with a smart draft beer selection and a small but workable wine list. And at night, Dooby's has a no-laptop policy. That's the nicest way I know to make dinner feel like ... well, dinner.

Dooby's

Rating: 3 stars

Where: 802 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Contact: 410-702-5144, doobyscoffee.com

Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers: $7-$8; entrees $12-$21

Food: Asian influenced cafe fare at dinner, sandwiches and salads at lunch

Service: Attentive and energetic but not intrusive

Parking/accessibility: On-street parking with nearby lots

Children: There is no children's menu.

Special diets: There are vegetarian options among the appetizers and entrees.

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in both dining rooms. At dinner, the music in the upper dining room can be assertive. There are no televisions at Dooby's.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Fair: 1 star]