Awesome places to dine don't always have gleaming tableware and leather-bound wine lists. They don't always have stylish hostesses and fresh flowers, and they don't always have menus sprinkled with all the current buzzwords.
One thing they will have? Good eats.
An important way to guarantee that food tastes delicious is to use only the best and freshest ingredients. At A Cook's Café, chef and owner Craig Sewell goes the extra mile to make sure that's the case.
Sewell, who was committed to using only local purveyors long before the term locavore was even well known, is proud to use more than 50 suppliers from our area.
This becomes even more important within the context of typical restaurant business plans. Most restaurants strive to deal with the fewest possible number of purveyors. The reason? Cost efficiency, advantages of bulk buying, less hassle with regard to billing, etc.
In other words, fewer suppliers equal fewer headaches. This is why you see so many huge food service trucks backed up to so many restaurant kitchens.
Here's a brief test you can take to convince yourself of the merit of chef Sewell's plan: Go in at lunchtime and order a Day and Night ($7.75). Then taste the individual components of the sandwich — artisan pumpernickel bread from American Hearth Bakery, tarragon chicken salad made from pastured local chicken, luscious tomatoes and lettuce picked within hours (as opposed to days or weeks) from a farm in Crownsville.
Next, get a chicken salad sandwich from any other place and delight in the disparity. All told, the tomato alone would make the difference.
Not only does A Cook's Café have a regular menu driven entirely by what's seasonal and locally available, but they have appealing daily specials as well.
On a recent day, you might have started with the Summer Ripe Gazpacho ($4.50) and then enjoyed a dish called The Harmony Wrap ($8.75). Attractive to vegetarians and vegans (as well as anyone else), this luncheon special was comprised of baked tofu, baby spinach, carrots, red onion, pea shoots, homemade Hoisin Ginger Dressing, and a black bean tortilla.
Then you could have finished with an Ice Cream Sundae ($3.50) with ice cream from Prigels Family Creamery in Glen Arm in Baltimore County and a variety of toppings — maybe some luscious peaches or cherries and then some real whipped cream. Yum.
One of my favorite menu items (and a favorite of my friends) is the Salad Trio ($8.75). The components are the tarragon chicken salad, albacore tuna salad (tuna from Two Oceans Seafood), and local baby greens studded with gingered pecans, crumbles of bleu cheese, and slices of strawberry.
Homemade dressing choices include White Balsamic Vinaigrette (our favorite), Raspberry Vinaigrette, Buttermilk Ranch (wait'll you taste that one), Hoisin Ginger, Strawberry Poppy Seed, Caesar, and Bleu Cheese. The salad trio comes with an authentic baguette from Bonaparte Bakery.
Some of our other favorites are from a section of the menu entitled Designer Sandwiches (all $7.75). The 'Tucket pairs Virginia ham with artisan cheddar and sweet pickles. The sandwich is served on artisan rye spread with a mixture of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. (Sometimes we'd like a more liberal slathering.)
Another go-to item is the Pacific Coast with roasted Heritage turkey (from Springfield Farm in Sparks, also in Baltimore County), tomato, avocado, sprouts, and mayo on a fresh croissant (again, from Bonaparte Bakery).
Beef lovers will enjoy the Beauty and the Beast which features roast beef (it will take you back to your grandmother's Sunday dinner table), spinach, tomato, and more of the delectable artisan cheddar cheese. The sandwich is served with horseradish mustard on a Kaiser roll.
Chef Sewell's passion for cuisine based on ingredients that are both scrumptious and nutritionally sound takes him into areas other than the foodstuffs available on a daily basis at A Cook's Café. His thriving catering business includes providing items for cafés in the Anne Arundel Medical Center (packaged in eco-friendly containers) as well as providing catered meals for parties, receptions and business meetings.
He is also available for developing custom menus and boutique meal preparation for discerning diners by request.
Additionally, chef Sewell acts as a facilitator for the entire local Farm to Fork movement. The Market Basket Program consists of two parts: the CSA subscriptions that provide fresh local produce through Thanksgiving and the supplemental program that includes meat, eggs, etc., and does not require a subscription (just order as you choose and pick up on Saturdays).
For information about either of these programs, contact chef Sewell by e-mail (address on the website which is listed in the WHEN YOU GO box of this review.)
If the idea of food that tastes like food used to taste is appealing to you, you should join the dedicated cadre of regulars who show up several times a week to savor the outstanding fare at A Cook's Café. The felicitous fact is that you don't have to make a choice between food that tastes good and food that's good for you.
Want proof? One visit to A Cook's Café is all that's needed.
OF NOTE: We all know how we should shop, so let's start doing it.
If you shop the perimeter of the supermarket, you'll be exposed to fresh produce, fresh meats, fish, and poultry, and fresh dairy.
Shopping the interior exposes you to processed foods with ingredients that are often suspect. Read and study labels, and look for products with the fewest number of ingredients.
One final caveat: if you can't pronounce it or spell it, don't eat it.
A FINAL NOTE: Give yourselves a hand.
Everyone is doing so much better with regard to cellphone conversations in restaurants, but now we need to take it one step farther.
Even though refraining from talking on the phone is courteous to the other restaurant guests, refraining from texting (or checking e-mails, ordering from Amazon, etc.) is a courtesy to the other people at your table.
Also, as has been mentioned in this space before, phones on tables are in harm's way. Servers have to work around them and spills can happen.
Do everyone a favor and pocket your phone when you sit down at the table.
Terra Walters is a freelance writer and editor based in Annapolis.
WHEN YOU GO
WHAT: A Cook's Cafe
WHERE: 911 Commerce Road, Annapolis (off Bestgate Road, across from Westfield Annapolis mall).
HOURS: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-noon Saturday. Closed Sunday.
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Craig Sewell.
FIRST COURSES: $4.50 to $8.75.
MAIN COURSES: $7.75 to $9.25.
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards accepted.