Local sourcing and seasonally driven menus are no longer new on the dining scene. But they are still a phenomenon to praise and, when a restaurant is particularly innovative, celebrate.
Canteen, a laid back Station North spot, deserves that celebration. The setting is cool, casual and friendly. The hearty food is equally low-key — more comforting than fancy — but it is thoughtful, creatively seasoned, often using Asian spices, and surprising in small ways.
Scene & Decor Canteen occupies the fantastic Station North space where the Bohemian Coffee House used to reside. It's not a large restaurant, but the ceilings are high and the windows large, making it feel bigger than it is. With reclaimed furniture and live plants everywhere, often spilling out of glass beakers, Canteen has a fresh, welcoming vibe.
Though charming, the space felt a bit unfinished. A large ladder leaned against one wall and in the back, a computer and phone sat amid a tangle of cords. Somehow, those details weren't as jarring as they'd be in a more polished space. Still, when we walked in and saw the ladder, it felt a little like we'd arrived at a friend's house three hours early for a party.
Drinks Canteen is currently BYOB with no corkage fee but thanks to the restaurant's thoughtful approach to coffee and tea drinks, we didn't miss the alcohol.
An Americano ($2.25) was rich, with a bitter edge — very good coffee, served simply. Our favorite beverage, a glass of iced ginger honey tea ($3.45), was more unusual. Made with honey from Oak Hill Honey, which is also owned by Canteen's proprietor Dane Nester, the drink was sweet and well-balanced but also full of spicy ginger. Every sip started with a snap and left us with a tiny chill. We loved it.
Appetizers Canteen's menu, scrawled on a chalkboard, changes frequently, reflecting what is locally available at the time. It's not divided into traditional categories and everything we ordered arrived at once so we took it upon ourselves to start with salad then move on to the entrees.
Though the kitchen was out of ingredients for the advertised kale salad, the chef scrambled for us, putting together a bright bowl of peppery greens, carrots and nuts with an appealing, mild lemony dressing ($4).
Entrees The lion's head meatballs ($12), based on the traditional Shanghai dish, came with rice, mushrooms and tons of flavor — a satisfying, exotic comfort food. The meatballs were soft in texture with a bit of tang that mellowed into sweetness.
The braised pork belly ($13), similarly served with mushrooms and over rice, also incorporated sweetness to great success. The pork itself was tender, its richness cut somewhat by the rice and a sprinkle of green onions and cilantro.
A cast-iron skillet filled with rice, chickpeas and bacon, then topped with a lovely egg and melted cheddar cheese ($13), was the kind of soothing dish we never tire of — not when each element, from the crunchy bottom crust of rice to the brilliant orange, just-runny egg yolk, was cooked so nicely.
Dessert A slice of goat cheese cheesecake ($4.25), made at Freeland's Charlottetown Farm, was tangy, sweet and dense — a tasty end to the meal. Our only disappointment was that the restaurant had just run out of their homemade cherry topping.
Service During our visit, there were few other guests, so we had the chef and sole front-of-the-house employee almost all to ourselves. Theoretically, ordering is done at the long bar and food is delivered to diners at their seats. Because the place was nearly empty — and the space between our booth and the bar wasn't huge — we ordered and chatted without leaving our seats.
Both the woman behind the bar and the chef, who delivered our food herself, were personable and chatty. Drinks took some time to prepare (the coffee-making and tea-steeping process was a serious one) but our food came quickly. We're not sure, though, how the minimally staffed restaurant would fare on a busier night.
And given the quality of both the food and the atmosphere — and the feeling that what Canteen is doing is just a little different than what's happening elsewhere in Baltimore — there are sure to be busier nights. Soon.
Back story: Opened last fall in the Station North space formerly occupied by the Bohemian Coffee House, Canteen pairs an ambitious coffee and tea program with a fresh, often Asian-inspired approach to local, seasonal ingredients.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The "best skillet" — a cast iron skillet packed with rice (crispy on the bottom), bits of chewy bacon, chickpeas and melted cheddar, all topped with a lovely, runny egg — was filling and full of intriguing flavors and textures.
Where: 1821 N. Charles Street
Contact: 443-759-6608; canteenbaltimore.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not currently accepted
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Bottom line: Casual, hearty food and global flavors in a friendly, airy Station North space