Pretty soon Baltimore will be more famous for its coffeehouses than Seattle. The newest entry is the City Cafe, at Cathedral and Eager streets. It specializes in gourmet coffee drinks, but you can also get bagels and pastries for breakfast, and sandwiches, soup, salads and desserts the rest of the time.
The large corner space originally housed a car dealership. Now it has floor-to-ceiling windows and a jazzy black-and-white decor that looks as if it's built around what must be the original floor tiles. Too bad the freshly painted white walls, sleek black furniture and clever lighting fixtures make the tiles look even dirtier and more worn than they are. But in this era of recycling and ruined chic, I'm just being old-fashioned to complain.
As in many coffeehouses, food is secondary at the City Cafe -- serious food, that is. What sets this place apart, at least the couple of times I was there, was an efficient system of getting what they do have to the table.
You order at the counter, pay, and sit down. Someone brings the food to your table quicker than you might think possible. They keep an eye on you to, say, bring you a drink refill. It's as if you get a waiter once you've ordered.
The menu is simple, with a few specialties such as soup served in a hollowed-out French boule (a small round loaf). It's a charming touch, but the waste makes me nervous. Once you've eaten the good cream of broccoli soup (or whatever) are you really going to polish off the shell of bread?
Other specialties are items that can be easily done by microwave, and the kitchen was very careful not to overdo ours. That's good, but it did mean the stuffed croissant and the torta rustica arrived only lukewarm. I liked them both, though. The torta had a delicate crust and a robust spinach and fontina cheese filling; the flaky croissant was stuffed with chicken and havarti cheese.
Side salads with pleasant dressings (ginger-orange and a red wine vinaigrette) came with both. The City Cafe has a few sandwiches, such as an all-vegetable one with big slices of portobello mushrooms instead of meat, sprouts, tomatoes and onions, with the ginger-orange dressing and good, thin-sliced seven-grain bread. There were excellent tortilla chips on the side.
You can get the City Cafe's spicy chicken salad as a salad or a sandwich. The chicken has a Caribbean marinade, which makes it taste something like jerk chicken, and bits of pineapple. (But make it with less oil, please.)
Naturally you can't have a coffeehouse without elaborate
desserts. There were the chocolate cheesecakes and mocha madnesses, or whatever the plural of that is, but the one that won our hearts was an "apple blossom": phyllo pastry molded in a spectacular way and arranged so its filling of warm cinnamon apples spilled out onto the plate.
Where: 1001 Cathedral St.
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 7:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Credit cards accepted: MC, V
Features: Light fare
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 539-4252