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Comfort food cooked with care at Water for Chocolate in Butchers Hill

Water for Chocolate chef/owner Sean Guy calls his food "sexy comfort cuisine." We're not sure about the "sexy" part, but his capable take on traditional Southern comfort food is definitely impressive.

Guy cut his teeth in chain restaurants — think Hard Rock Cafe — but Water for Chocolate is anything but corporate. Operated out of a corner storefront in Butchers Hill, the restaurant dishes up breakfast, lunch and dinner to a steady stream of loyal, local customers.

Scene & Decor With soda cases lining one wall, a path to the bathroom that winds through the kitchen and a weeknight closing time of 7 p.m., Water for Chocolate sometimes feels more like a carryout than a sit-down restaurant. And its carryout business is brisk.

When we arrived at Water for Chocolate just before 6 on a Thursday evening, the small space was nearly empty, but behind the glass-front counter, Guy and one employee were hustling, and with good reason. During dinner, Guy and company sent dozens of carryout bags out the door with happy customers.

Entrees Guy keeps dinner service simple with just a handful of well-constructed and well-executed entrees, all riffs on traditional Southern comfort food.

Blackened tilapia ($10.95) sounded somewhat outdated, but won us over. Cajun seasoning was at the height of culinary popularity during the 1980s, but Guy's liberal dusting of the spicy seasoning convinced us it's due for a reprise. Tilapia, with its firm texture and mild flavor, was an ideal foil for the hot coating.

A handful of crisp green beans and a side of parmesan-spiked grits rounded out the plate. The beans were cooked nicely — not overdone — but the grits, which cooled us off when the fish got too hot, were our favorite element of the meal. Creamy but textured, they showed off the cheese's salty, nutty flavor.

Pork barbecue ($10.95) is a time-honored staple of Southern cuisine; Water for Chocolate got it right. Guy slow roasted the pork, leaving it tender and juicy, then dressed it in a red sauce that was tangy and sweet with just a hint of spice.

A side of cornbread was sweet, moist and crumbly — and spicy thanks to chunks of jalapeno baked into the batter. It was a lovely match for the saucy pork.

Guy's pork preparation was traditional; with the addition of jalapeno, the cornbread was a slight departure from the norm. But Guy's mac and cheese — made with goat cheese — took the tried and true comfort food to a whole new level. The consistency of the mac and cheese was familiar and it was just as gooey as it needed to be. But the addition of goat cheese to the mix added a tangy bite that was undeniably sophisticated. OK, even sexy.

Drinks Water for Chocolate does not have a liquor or BYOB license but Guy stocks a number of sodas, juices and teas. Fresh brewed iced tea ($1.75) and a bright Arnold Palmer ($2) were refreshing matches for our entrees.

Service During our visit, Guy and his single employee juggled carryout traffic, cooking and the few in-house tables that were occupied. Their friendly attitude and timely responses have obviously made them popular among locals. Customers chatted with Guy about weekend plans. We even spotted a hug or two.

Dessert The meal's final act is so often an afterthought at casual restaurants. Not at Water for Chocolate.

A simple dish of warm chocolate brownies ($2) was rich, dark and decadent; we were pleased that Guy did not feel the need to hide his gorgeous brownies under a pile of whipped cream.

The brownies were appealing, but Guy's signature dessert, sweet potato bread pudding ($4.45), was itself worth a trip to the restaurant. Warm, soft bread pudding was streaked with layers of pureed sweet potato, then bathed in sweet, fragrant creme anglaise. The juxtaposition of sweet potato and silky sauce was unexpected — and it worked.

Guy named Water for Chocolate after the Mexican novel "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel. One of the novel's themes involves cooking as an outlet for creative expression and passion. The name is apt: Guy's repertoire is familiar and comforting, but even in the simplest dishes, his passion shines.

Water for Chocolate

Back story: After years working in the kitchens of chain restaurants, from Planet Hollywood to the Hard Rock Cafe, Chef Sean Guy opened Water for Chocolate as a catering company in 2006. Two years later, he opened a restaurant of the same name, bringing his capable takes on traditional Southern comfort food to Butchers Hill. Busier as a carryout than as a sit-down restaurant, Water for Chocolate is a favorite among its neighbors.

Parking: Street parking

Signature dish: Don't miss Water for Chocolate's pulled pork, available as a sandwich or platter. The tender, slow-roasted pork is dressed with tangy-sweet barbecue sauce. With the platter, goat cheese-spiked macaroni and cheese is surprisingly sophisticated and jalapeno corn bread is sweet and crumbly, with jolts of heat.

TVs: one

Where: 1841 E. Lombard St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-675-7778;

Open: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Bottom line: Simple but sophisticated comfort food in a casual, friendly setting

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