What if you had a choice between any institutional cafeteria you know and a cafeteria with "commitments" to organically raised produce, food-waste reduction, socially responsible sourcing and a low-carbon diet?
If you pick the latter, welcome to Cafe Bon Appetit, at 621 W. Lombard St. in the center of a multitude of appetites connected in some way to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and tucked between the Health Sciences/Human Services library and the School of Nursing.
If nothing else, CBA suggests what to expect from politically correct fixings assembled in a mass-market kitchen. The concept is an intriguing one for which I had high hopes.
12:16 p.m. We arrive in the Southern Management Corporation Campus Center. A security guard asks to see our I.D. After our presence was duly noted, we passed the first-floor Cafe Bon Appetit To Go space and trucked up a wide staircase to the second floor where the sit-down version of the cafe is located. The CBA carryout space allows text message orders for eaters in a hurry.
12:20 p.m. After a brief orientation in which we searched for menus (paper menus only for CBA To Go; the sit-down cafeteria posts its menus at the counter, presumably to cut down on paper use) and got the lay of the counter setup -- you have your pizza and sandwich station, your potato station, burger station and daily specials station -- we picked our stations and waited in line.
12:34 p.m. We find a table. We arrived at what appeared to be the height of the lunch hour and the place was packed, but we still managed to find a table. Props for setting: wide, clean, bright. The round tables can easily seat six, and the setup allows for borrowing unused chairs from one table to add to an under-chaired group. It's about as relaxed and inviting as I can imagine a cafeteria being. It has no trace of institutional antiseptic, none of the clanky noise and no drab plastic trays (not that those aren't handy).
We liked that CBA offers a "celiac-friendly" pizza. However, if the pizza we sampled (not expressly celiac-friendly) is any indication, it's not exceedingly taste-bud-friendly. The spinach was blah, the grape tomato nice, and there was a funky hint of berry that we traced to the whole wheat crust, perhaps errantly, but it was the best we could do given our sample size.
The turkey panini was OK. The bread, cheese and turkey refused to break from middling cafeteria sandwich acceptability. Social responsibility bestowed no discernible surprises. Except one: the panini was bursting with yellow mustard, a dissonance we noted with curiosity. The sandwich was served with a couple of pickle spears and, maybe the high point of our meal flavor-wise, nicely browned kettle fries.
Our stir-fry was prepared on an induction cooker that heats the contents inside the cooking vessel without getting hot itself. True to CBA form, induction cookers are also more energy efficient. It's one of the new wonders of the world, and I want one. It's also a good conversation starter if you're standing in line with strangers waiting for your orders.
The stir-fry included chicken chunks (the other choice was tofu), ginger, baby corn, pea pods, garlic and other goodies tossed with rice. For $8.35 we got a scant pint in a carryout box sans metal handle, making it microwave safe. From a gastronomic perspective, the stir-fry was routine, a notch above bland, designed to relate to a wide palate spectrum without offense. No adventure here.
1:04 p.m. There's no question you can get in and out faster than we did. We finish and bus our table. We were mildly shocked they didn't offer a recycle bin for our glass Izze bottles.
In the end, Cafe Bon Appetit's best offering is conceptual: an institutional cafeteria with a "conscience." In terms of taste, I'm not convinced it improves much on the expected standard, but if I had to choose between the school and workplace cafeterias I'm used to and CBA, I'd pick Cafe Bon Appetit, unless I was in the mood for pizza.
I suspect the "conscience" thing is less a marketing ploy than a survival tactic. The Cafe Bon Appetite Management Company recognizes (I'm guessing) trends and reacts accordingly. Whether half those trends survive the next few growing seasons is less important than that an attempt is made to cover all the popular ethics bases while still managing to deliver lots of food on time to lots of people. Like its palate range, CBA needs to appeal to a wide range of tastes and ethics bases and the easiest way to do that is offend as few and accommodate as many as possible. Along with an exceptional setting, CBA deserves kudos for business acumen.
Cafe Bon Appetit
Where: 621 W. Lombard St.
Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday
Lunch entrees: $5-$8.35
Dining time: 48 minutes
Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor: