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Red Canoe offers muffins and more

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Before anything else, I want to say right away that this place makes the best sweet and savory muffins I think I've ever had. Really, really great muffins.

When Nicole and Peter Selhorst opened Lauraville's Red Canoe Bookstore five years ago, there were, except for the Chameleon Cafe and good old Koco's, only sporadic and mostly sputtering businesses to serve the neighborhood's growing population of young families and first-time homeowners. It's hard to imagine the wonderful developments all along this Northeast corridor without Lauraville paving the way. The Red Canoe deserves pioneering credit. And have I mentioned their muffins?

According to Nicole Selhorst, Red Canoe was originally intended to be a children-focused bookstore that incidentally sold coffee and maybe some muffins. By all accounts, Red Canoe has succeeded in its core mission, which includes expanding literacy and building community. It turned out, though, that every little thing Peter Selhorst made, the customers loved a lot, and gradually, the cafe operations expanded - it now serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week.

Red Canoe occupies adjoining brightly painted rowhouses, each with its own entrance, one into the bookstore and one into the cafe, which consists of a counter area bracketed by two handsome-old-house dining rooms. Even if there were no cafe, this would still be a family destination. I enjoyed visiting here with a friend and her 20-month-old daughter, who seemed to know she was entering someplace she'd feel comfortable and welcome. We walked around with cups of Zeke's coffee (Zeke's is a Lauraville neighbor) and met some nice people: the wife of a local author whose new book was getting great reviews, a little girl who shared her balloon and the woman who makes scones every Saturday for the cafe.

And then we went to order lunch from the cafe. The menu is small, about a dozen wraps and sandwiches, a few daily soups and pastries. But it feels expansive, and the counter staff is excited to tell you about the food they're selling. Nicole Selhorst is from the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, Peter Selhorst is from Northern California's Bay Area, and their roots are evident. There is not only the emphasis on fresh, homemade and healthy ingredients (Red Canoe grows its own herbs and makes its own jellies and chutneys), but something else: the gently delivered message that eating good food in a pretty place is worth something.

We took our little meal outside on Red Canoe's deck, a little masterpiece of backyard design, with comfortable shaded seating on two levels. Customers can enter through a gate in the back, too. We liked everything. I did go a little crazy over that muffin, but I think it's the best one I've ever had. Topped by poppy seeds, and just on the verge of overbaked, it was moist in every bite. The blueberry muffin, I know, has big admirers, too, as do the savory varieties - a quiche Lorraine or spinach and cheddar. We also loved that day's fresh soups, too: a pleasantly simple cream of asparagus soup and a vegetarian chili, which relied more on protein-filled beans than tomatoes.

Our junior eater took to her hummus plate with dried fruit and pecans, and so did the adults who finished it for her. The Red Canoe's hummus has a stronger sesame flavor than usual, which we liked in a small dose. Sandwiches and wraps are pretty and tasty, assembled from good, dense breads and fresh greens. The cafe also does panini now, along with a few other hot items like macaroni and cheese.

I wanted to talk more about the cafe, but in a way, I'm glad I've run out of room. I like how the cafe, wonderful as it is, fits into a bigger picture.

Red Canoe Bookstore Cafe Where: 4337 Harford Road

Call: 410-444-4440

Open: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday and Monday

Appetizers: $3.75-$6.50

Entrees: $4.50-$6.75

Credit cards: Master Card, VISA, AMEX

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

On the menu •Apple turkey wrap - $6.75

•Cup of asparagus soup & half roast beef sandwich - $6.75

•Cup of vegetarian chili - $3.75

•Child's hummus plate - $3.75

•Savory muffins - $2.75

•Sweet muffins - $2.50

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