When Peter Zimmer opened the Joy America Cafe in the American Visionary Arts Museum three years ago, Baltimore was amazed at the originality of the food. But originality can have its downside. As a friend of mine said recently, "I never had a meal there that I didn't scrape something off."
Still, you can't serve crab imperial and prime rib in the cafe of Baltimore's most offbeat museum. So when restaurateurs Spike and Charlie Gjerde took over Joy America this spring, they decided against any dramatic changes in style. They simply wanted to make the food a little more accessible to the general public.
The minimalist chic dining room is the same, with its half-moon picture window that overlooks the harbor. Decoration, such as there is, comes in the form of a few well-chosen appointments and lively art from the museum's permanent collection.
What's changed is the menu. The new Joy America is no clone of the Gjerde brothers' other two restaurants, Spike & Charlie's and the Atlantic. Instead, chef Jason Horwitz's food is -- what? -- nouveau Southwestern-Caribbean? Whatever label you put on it, it's very close to fabulous.
Juxtapositions are surprising but wonderful, like a delicate cilantro soup enlivened with coconut creme fraiche and a sliver or two of red pepper and carrot. Sparkling-fresh tuna and shrimp ceviche arrives in a martini glass with a zingy sauce and a couple of jaunty plantain chips.
You can share a first course of smoky jerk chicken wrapped in cooling lettuce leaves, or one of the chalupas (crisp, flat Southwestern pizzas) topped with chicken, pork or queso blanco (cheese). But the island sweet potato salad is something you'll want to keep to yourself, with its strips of sweet potato and arugula in a seductive vinaigrette.
Horwitz has a knack with seafood, as a whole grilled red snapper on watercress, fragile and succulent, attested. In a different vein, but equally fine, is the Caribbean lobster stew. The juicy lumps of lobster are balanced by a fragrant tomato and sweet potato ragout.
But if you decide on seafood, you'll miss flavorful boar chops with their dark and cunning sauce or the unbelievably well-marbled and meaty T-bone steak cut cowboy-style like an oversized chop.
The best dessert is the flan of the day, just the right sweetness to finish the meal without finishing you off. But if you must overindulge, try the homemade ice cream sandwich made with chocolate cookies and orange coconut ice cream, or the intensely chocolate empanadas (turnovers) with homemade almond-flavored ice milk.
Everything here is as much a treat for the eye as the tongue -- without Zimmer's dazzling and eye-popping tomfoolery, perhaps, but more subtle and somehow more appetizing.
So what could possibly dim the magnificence of this dinner, other than a tamale sampler and a house salad that didn't quite live up to the rest of the meal?
How about having one waitress to handle the whole dining room.
True, it was only about half full. True, she was friendly and competent. True, the hostess helped when she could. But with only one waitress and no buspeople, waits were long and there was no one to fill water glasses or bring a second glass of wine. I asked for bread twice and finally gave up.
Maybe this was simply one of those evenings when the rest of the help didn't show up. Maybe because it was a rainy night the manager didn't think any customers would show up. But if that were the case, no one was saying a word about it to us.
JOY AMERICA CAFE
Food: *** 1/2
Where: 800 Key Highway
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $5.50-$9.50; main courses, $9-$27. Major credit cards accepted
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *