Museum Cafe, Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, (410) 235-3930. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch, closed Mondays. Major credit cards accepted. No-smoking area: yes. Handicapped accessible: yes.
The Museum Cafe is one of those restaurants I want to love. It's a pleasure just to be sitting at one of the tables outside waiting for your meal, surrounded by sculptures, the fountain murmuring, a slight breeze ruffling the trees. If it's too cool to eat on the terrace, the contemporary dining room is pleasing to the eye and soothing to the senses, especially when night falls and rTC the room is filled with candlelight.
OK, I admit to being mildly irritated by the fact that one has to feed the parking meters on the lot until 10 p.m., quarters only, but the money does go to the museum's educational programs.
And it's too bad that once it gets dark the neon "silence/violin" sign above the terrace starts winking off and on. One minute you're plunged into almost-darkness, the next you're sitting in a pinkish glow. Very disconcerting if you like to see what you're eating.
But still, I want to love this restaurant. I'll settle for passable food just because I like being there so much. But what can you say about a meal whose high point was the bread that came before we'd even ordered?
Let me expound on that bread a moment. It's made on the premises, according to our waitress, and has a mild molasses flavor -- a soft, hot loaf studded with chewy little sprouts. Alas, it was all downhill from there. And to add to our distress, we waited endlessly for our main courses. Once we were finished, we waited some more -- with dirty dishes in front of us -- for our waitress to return with desserts. She seemed to be trying hard; but not only was the cafe understaffed, she had been given tables at opposite ends of the terrace -- not the most efficient way to set things up.
But I'm putting off describing the food.
The menu has changed since I was there last, and I like the fact that there's a good selection of "light fare" dishes for under $10. (The six main courses with a vegetable and salad are considerably more expensive.) Most of the selections are innovative, but my advice would be to stick to the ordinary. A crab cake might be safer than, say, my grilled rosemary chicken with roasted sweet elephant garlic ($12.95). It tasted of lemon juice, not rosemary, and lots of garlic. (Not surprising, since overlapping slices of roasted garlic were arranged on top.) Served with it was a combination of sliced red onion and red cabbage. A mistake. You might want all that garlic, but not with red onion. Also plonked down on the plate was one whole red-skinned potato.
I had started my meal with coconut shrimp ($5.95), four shrimp (which tasted a bit off) dipped in batter, then in sweetened coconut, and then deep-fried to form a thick, dessert-sweet crust. Well, the chutney that came with them was fine.
They were followed by salads that looked as if they had been refrigerated a good long while before we got them. The lettuce was a little limp, the cucumbers shriveling at the edges, the mushrooms old and woody, the cherry tomatoes more yellow than red. Good house vinaigrette, though.
First courses are limited to those shrimp, a salad, fried artichoke hearts, soup or goat cheese triangles ($5.25). Those who love the Greek version, tyropites, will wish there were more flaky pastry and less goat cheese. And the tomato sauce, a good chunky tomato sauce, may seem extraneous. The best of our starters was a simple cream of cauliflower soup, rich and homey and not overseasoned.
As for main courses, cannelloni with spinach and three cheeses ($6.95) was mushy, and its wash of tomato cream sauce reminded me of canned cream of tomato soup. Scallops in black bean sauce ($10.95) appealed at first -- the fresh scallops, snow peas and red pepper strips tossed with fettuccine. The problem was that the sauce was hoisin sauce and nothing else that I could discern; after about four bites it tasted cloyingly thick and sweet.
A seafood burrito ($8.95) was room temperature by the time we got it. The shrimp and crab were pretty much overwhelmed by cheese, salsa, guacamole and refried beans.
Desserts from the pastry tray -- the usual suspects -- were all pretty good, but we would have enjoyed them more if we hadn't waited so long for them. It's the kind of bad service that's hard to complain about because everyone from the maitre d' down is so nice and seems to be doing his or her best. I'm just sorry a restaurant that has so much potential (a restaurant that out-of-towners visiting the museum are likely to judge Baltimore's food by) can't quite pull it off -- food or service.