Restaurant Review: Fresh fruits, quick food at Big Apple Tree Café

Choosy diners know that among the myriad offerings in pay-by-weight buffets, they are likely to find much that is mediocre and maybe a few reliable comfort food picks.

Big Apple Tree Café runs a pay-by buffet and operates a sandwich counter at Baltimore and South streets. The café serves breakfast and lunch in a quadrant of the city teeming with government and private office workers. It sits within a couple blocks of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, the MD District Courthouse and City Hall. But what's best about the Big Apple Tree Café makes a longer walk rewarding.

12:22 Tall windows help make Big Apple one of the brighter cafeterias in its class. This is no less true of the buffet lighting, which makes for an attractive presentation, especially true of the salad and fruit islands.

On this visit, the sandwich counter seemed to maintain a steady line of around eight or nine people either waiting to order or pick up. The buffet islands were even more popular; some sides were packed. Diners circled the islands and moved down the lines of food pans, weighing options and making picks — sort of like speed dating for calories.

12:33 The long overhead menu above the sandwich counter announces almost as many offerings as the buffet islands. We picked an Italian cold cut and then checked out the islands.

A few, and only a very few, items appear sketchy, like maybe they've lounged in the tray too long or have been picked over to exhaustion. Everything else ranged from presentable to tempting. The two islands holding salads fixings, fruits and vegetables are particularly attractive. The variety is stunning. If you think of pay-by-weight buffets as all gloppy sauces and overcooked meat, well, chances are you're speaking from experience. But Big Apple makes a strong showing in meatless meals.

The buffet charge is $6.29 a pound for hot food and salad items. We went for variety and small portions and ended up weighing in at almost exactly one pound. Our drinks, a couple bottles of fruit juice, were two bucks apiece. Plan to spend at least $8 for food and drink.

12:44 Despite the lines, our ICC order was called exactly as we finished plundering the islands. And despite the crowd, we found a window seat on the Baltimore Street side.

Our cold cut sub was a solid piece of work, and a fair deal at $5.79. The meat-to-bread ratio was good, and the hots and dressing were balanced. It's a good pick for a quick meal, whether you eat in or take it out, as long as you get to it before the bread goes soggy.

As for the buffet samplings, a good number of our selections were in keeping with institutional, high volume cooking: Well above the most notorious grades of hospital and certainly airline meals; but few of the meats and pastas would prompt us to run back for seconds. The teriyaki sauce seemed gelatin based. The fettuccine was al dente, unlike the ziti, but we liked them both. The onion rings were tasty but remarkably chewy, like they'd cured too long in display. The whiting, though, probably suits to a tee the taste of many folks who like their fish cooked well done and moistened with a light stock.

On the other hand, the veggies came off very well. We were particularly impressed with the asparagus. Texture, flavor, color, seasonings: the Café hit every note right.

But nothing on this visit compared to the fruit. Melons, berries, pineapple, kiwi — all were fresh, good color, cool, and just ripe. During hot spring and summer days, Big Apple is a significant find for crisp and juicy fare. With no intended slight to the carbs and protein on display here, it would be hard to return and not focus exclusively on veggies and fruit.

1:02 So the Big Apple is a popular lunch spot, fast, heavy on variety, and a potential oasis for vegetarian dining. If you're on jury duty or otherwise pressed for time, turning lunch in under an hour, walking included, will be no problem here — even when its busy.

Big Apple Tree Café

Where: 300 Baltimore St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-468-3022

Lunch hours: 10:30 a.m.-3:20 p.m. Monday-Friday

Lunch entrées: $3.59-$6.49

Buffet: $6.29/lb.

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]

Dining time: 40 minutes