Downtown Baltimore -- the centrally located neighborhood stretching between Lexington Market and the Jones Falls Expressway -- is known for a lot of things. But a vibrant dinner scene isn't one of them.
Argosy Cafe has the potential to change that. The restaurant, in the Munsey building on North Calvert Street, and named for the pulp magazines published by the building's namesake, Frank Munsey, turns out creative, appealing food that's not quite perfect, but worth a try.
Scene & Decor Argosy's space, with high ceilings and enormous windows, feels large, especially when it's as sparsely populated as it was during our Monday evening visit.
Long communal tables occupy the center of the room. When we arrived, they were empty, so we grabbed seats at the end of the bar that runs along the back. As we settled in, sharing the bar with only a couple of other diners, the bartender explained that he sees bigger lunchtime and happy-hour rushes than dinner crowds.
Appetizers Argosy's menu changes frequently, but always includes a handful of snacks and small plates, plus a short list of sandwiches and entrees.
We started with the bacon "snax" ($3), which the bartender explained were the cast-off bits of the bacon Argosy makes in-house. The bite-sized snacks were puffy and soft, with bready texture and surprisingly mild flavor. They made sense as a happy-hour nosh and we enjoyed them, though we may have liked them better with a more intense bacon flavor.
The mushroom toast ($8) was similarly subtle. Two rounds of thin, crispy bread were topped with smears of woodsy, sweet mushroom spread and a scattering of chopped scallions. The flavor was good, but the dish as a whole would be even better if the taste was more intense.
Entrees A plate of pierogies topped with crumbly sausage ($14), all of which was made in-house, was slippery, savory and comforting. The bartender explained that our dish was a little different from how the plate is usually presented. The sausage is typically sliced, not crumbled, but we liked it just as it was.
The pierogies were cooked nicely, browned and crisp in spots, and we enjoyed the addition of a few sliced scallions. Our only complaint: The pierogies were slightly underseasoned.
The same was true for the duck confit ($25), paired with puffed wild rice and chow chow, the Southern pickled vegetable relish. There, the rice was the underseasoned element. But thanks to the tart chow chow, we didn't miss the salt much.
The duck, with its fabulously crispy skin and tender meat, was lovely, and bites of rice, duck and chow chow eaten together were full of exciting textures and flavors.
Despite our quibbles, our overall impression of the food was good. The dishes were unusual and thoughtfully conceived; with a slightly heavier seasoning hand, they could be great.
Drinks The duck was part of a special, tied to a breast cancer charity: A pint of Yards Brewing Company's PYNK beer, brewed with cherries and raspberries, came included with the meal. The beer's tart, fruity, slightly sour profile was a great fit for the fatty duck.
From the short cocktail menu, our favorite drink was the Good Morning, Baltimore. A combination of rye, prosecco, lemon bitters and crumbly honeyed ginger, the drink was well-balanced and tasty.
Service Dining at a restaurant's bar is always a risk — some bartenders are more engaged with the food service aspect of the job than others. Fortunately, at Argosy, the bartender was closely attuned to the kitchen's timing — and to our beverage needs.
From start to finish, he was friendly and knowledgeable, chatting with us about the menu and upcoming restaurant events.
Dessert When we inquired about dessert, the bartender sheepishly explained that the menu didn't yet include any sweets, though he thought he might be able to scrounge up a muffin or cookie left over from earlier in the day.
We let him know that wasn't necessary — we were perfectly happy nursing our beers without anything sweet.
As we walked back out into the night, the streets were still quiet. But if Argosy continues in the same vein next time we visit, there might be a crowd.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Inner Harbor/Downtown