In his biography of James Beard, the American cook, foo writer and culinary impresario, Evan Jones mentions that Beard was an adviser to the American Cafe -- the first American Cafe -- in Georgetown. Jones writes of Beard eating the "Chinatown special" of marinated pork, alfalfa sprouts and pineapple, and crying, "I love this!" "Eureka!" so to speak.
Twenty years later, the Chinatown special is gone. A lot of the original spark seems to be absent as well. Does Beard turn over in his grave? Probably not. He was a man of the world.
My guess is, what's left from that original restaurant is a certain style of menu writing, based on the same thing that happens when you take a pretty dull cheese, name it Monterey Jack, and presto! see the Pacific Ocean.
At the American Cafe, you don't eat corned beef hash, you eat "Carolina corned beef hash," and hope to see Charleston. Or you choose something with "Georgia peanut sauce" on the side -- doesn't that have a ring to it? What would Arizona vegetarian chili be without Arizona, Chattanooga chicken pot pie without Chattanooga, San Francisco Joe eggs without San Francisco (or Joe -- who's Joe?), or Chicago beef stroganoff without Chicago? Plain ol' food, which, after all the verbal hoopla, is mostly what the American Cafe serves.
We tried a couple of fancy drinks, a couple of appetizers, four main dishes and a couple of desserts. The drinks were refreshing. One appetizer was imaginative. The rest? We mentally pretended we were tourists, who tend to be grateful for a clean place to sit down, when they're not fed execrably or charged too much. We were grateful.
Grateful for a "frozen tropical sunshine," for example, which we ordered because our waitress recommended it and it has a corny name. Three dollars and ninety-five cents buys rum, strawberries, ba- nanas, pineapple and coconut cream. It tasted like bananas. We also had a strawberry daiquiri, at $3.95. Terrific. (But on a scorcher of a day, who discriminates, vis-a-vis things cold and wet? By the way, according to our waitress, it was the third day the air conditioning was out at the American Cafe. They were waiting on Harborplace management to fix it.)
When we realized the sweltering heat was real, not just in our minds, it was too late to move to the outdoor balcony, because we'd already ordered our cheese pizza ($4.95) and an appetizer of Baja rolls ($3.95). "Mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan cheese with fresh basil tomato sauce" meant generic cheese, diluted tomato paste, and bread with a hollow in the middle. "Microwave," two of my friends said. "Trust us." (Bachelors know.)
The Baja rolls were likable -- the best food we ordered. Shaped like maki sushi, they consisted of sliced tortillas instead of seaweed, wrapped around sprouts, avocado, tomato and thin-sliced, deli-type turkey. They came with two snappy sauces -- a chilied avocado puree spiced with cumin, and hot-sauced tomato and onion.
Castroville artichoke chicken ($9.95) didn't make a bad main course. It had a thin layer of ham on it, and a thick layer of an avocado custard that was unusual. "Maryland grilled chicken breast with country Dijon sauce" ($8.95) (drop the "Maryland," drop the "country" and you get "chicken and mustard") was overcooked, the sauce oddly acid. It beat the bizarre "mushroom and pesto lasagna" ($7.95), made of a couple of layers of green noodles on a plate rim-to-rim in a cheese-flavored white sauce topped with a red circle of tomato puree. Between the noodles were some sliced mushrooms and ricotta.
We tried one sandwich to check out the sandwich possibilities. It was a Reuben ($5.95) that wasn't a Reuben. No sauerkraut. No cheese. Instead, some very warm cole slaw over corned beef, with Russian dressing on the bread.
A couple of the entrees came with dry, cooked-a-while-ago rice. Three came with green salads that were fresh and pleasant. In the oil and vinegar cruets, the oil was tasteless, the vinegar so so, but they nonetheless combined to make a delicious salad.
Desserts were a bust. We picked three sweets from the dessert tray. One was a dry, dull, jelly roll-looking cake ($3.25) whose brown coloring along the roll tasted faintly chocolate. There were also a white chocolate cake ($3.25), which set a pale brown, sugared shortening cream between layers of pallid chocolate cake, and a pecan pie ($2.95) that had the goodness of syrup and pecans, but a crust the thickness and flakiness of a cardboard box.
Our waitress was one of the American Cafe's assets. All those personable young people scattered about contribute attractiveness and energy. *
American Cafe, Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace, 962-8800
Hours: Mondays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to midnight, Fridays and Saturdays until 2 a.m., Sundays 10:30 a.m. to midnight
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: American cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
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