Any place that can shut me up, slow me down and get me to smell the roses wins a spot on my list of favorite places. When it also happens to serve a really great cup of coffee, I designate it a personal four-star restaurant. These places invariably display character that flavors every other trait and detail.
12:45 I am behind schedule with an early afternoon meeting looming and weighty work-related issues burdening my brain. Glancing around as we walk through a tiny dining room, my friend and I see no empty tables. Great. And not only that, but my first impression is that the place is like some crazy aunt's co-op: Each corner, shelf or floor space holds seemingly unrelated stuff, with 1,200 square feet of clutter in a 600-square-foot space. That perception, along with several others, will change.
The changes begin with the staff, who greet us at the counter.
12:51 Handed two menu sheets, we quickly looked them over and order. I am distracted by a bakery case crammed with a rather large variety of muffins. Hmm … dessert anyone? When I return my attention to the counter, there sat the big red mug — real, ceramic; not paper or foam. It's like a sign that I am no longer in a hurry, not "on the go."
Somewhere between directions to the coffee carafes and being shown another room with a window table, my anxiety level began dropping. The staff (we've encountered three so far) exudes genuine warmth and competence. Then the first sip. OK, how long has it been since I've had cup of coffee this good?
Throughout the rest of the meal, we periodically remark on our growing affection for the Canoe.
1:05 Our entrees arrive. Both our sandwiches — I ordered the chicken pesto and my dining companion ordered Cajun grilled cheese melt — are on the high end of the Canoe's price spectrum: $6.95. The low end is $6.75. If you're impressed by the sandwiches' generous proportions and obvious quality, you might decide you're in bargain territory.
The thin broth of my pesto feta soup is the one note that gives me pause. I wanted something richer, maybe creamy. My dining companion's reaction is more enthusiastic. Still, we both prefer his choice of New England clam chowder. It is a solid rendition with a fresh potato foreground backed by highlights of cream, clam and corn.
The ingredients in my pesto chicken panini are well-balanced, with no one item — bread, chicken, cheese or pesto — dominant. The touch that impresses me most is the bacon. I had to check to make sure that's what I was tasting. Had I built this sandwich myself, I'd have added more bacon. The Canoe kitchen's more subtle touch is insightful.
Red Canoe's nod to the gourmet grilled cheese trend prompts something like a double take. As with my panini, the sense of quality is enough to win us over. But the melt's remoulade, however quietly, steals the show. It asserts itself just enough to nudge a wholesome, down-home standby into something more suited to a Victorian manse.
1:21 We're nearly finished but in no hurry to leave. In fact, I'm in no hurry, period. The harried rush I came in on is gone. I look out the window, across Harford Road, to the big porches of the adjacent neighborhood.
1:30 We pay and depart with muffins. I pick the wild blueberry ($2.75) out of sheer lust for the genre. I add a quiche muffin ($3) out of curiosity. My dining companion orders the pumpkin muffin ($2.75). All three are dense, something like pound cake. The quiche is indeed savory. I'm not a pumpkin fan; my friend loves and recommends it. And the blueberry is why-didn't-I-buy-two-of-these good. One could be forgiven for not sharing.
The Red Canoe is also a bookstore that embraces its surrounding culture. It sponsors local artist exhibits, author signings, reading groups for children and adults, and other events. It is child-friendly to the point of having a play area in the dining room in which we were seated. Those no doubt add to the overall effect of the place and influence my judgment almost as much as the welcoming staff and the big red mugs of coffee.
• You be the critic: Write your own review for Red Canoe.
Where: 4437 Harford Road
Contact: 410-444-4440, redcanoe.biz
Lunch hours (same menu): 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Lunch entrees: $5.75-$6.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]
Dining time 45 minutes