At Desert Cafe, change is good


The restaurant near the southwestern corner of Newberry Street and Sulgrave Avenue in Mount Washington has had a number of incarnations over the last six years, first as Dessert Cafe, then as Desert Cafe. Now, in its second cycle as the latter, it's finally hit a great stride.

Blake Wollman and his sister, Whitney, bought the restaurant one year ago from their cousin-in-law. They kept the existing menu of eastern Mediterranean fare and got rid of the low chairs that were difficult for anyone over the age of 5 to maneuver.

Dark-red walls and silk pillows on benches give the place a more exotic atmosphere, enhanced greatly on Saturday nights when belly dancers take the floor. The Wollmans do not have a liquor license, but judging by the shelves of empty wine bottles in the upstairs dining room, people have no qualms about bringing their own alcohol.

A meal can easily be made out of appetizers at Desert Cafe; there are 11 from which to choose.

The musky, exotic scent of curried split-pea soup was as good as the taste. The addition of carrots and onions to the thick broth gave the soup enough texture to erase all memories of those bilious-looking varieties that plop out of cans.

Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) were more refreshing and less oily than the standard stuff served elsewhere, thanks to a liberal dose of lemon juice in the rice-garlic filling. Lemon also was a prominent note in the baba ghannouj (eggplant and tahini dip), but not prominent enough to thin and brighten a thick hummus. A plus was a plentiful side of buttery, crispy, warm pita chips.

Making lentils interesting is tough work, yet Whitney Wollman has managed to do so. Her mijaderah - the best entree we had - was a meaty mix of spiced rice, caramelized onions and lentils cooked enough to be chewy but still retain their shape. The dish worked beautifully with and without a smear of the onion-laced yogurt sauce that came on the side. (We put the sauce to a better use on the cucumber-tomato side salad.)

A seafood special of grilled shrimp was tasty enough, but my fastidious eating partner bristled at the prospect of peeling the partially encased shellfish himself. He softened up, however, when the server brought him a small bowl for the shells and extra napkins. The dish featured six fat, tender shrimp rolled in peppery spices and laid on a platter of Greek salad.

My mango curry chicken salad, wedged into a soft pita, was spread with barely a trace of mango - not enough to warrant being mentioned in the title.

Two out of three desserts were outstanding. Sandwiching a not-too-rich cheesecake filling between two layers of bittersweet chocolate cake was brilliant - especially so because the frosting was studded with chocolate chips. A moist, creamy hazelnut cake would have been too sweet had it not been dusted with hazelnuts.

Bringing up the rear was a banana split cake, which was an unsuccessful combination of spice cake, chocolate cake, walnuts and too-tangy banana cream; the flavors canceled each other out, and the cakes themselves were dry.

Desert Cafe offers a good selection of fancy coffees. We loved the iced mojave, a creamy concoction of mocha and amaretto syrup with a hint of caramel.

Desert Cafe

Where: 1605-07 Sulgrave Ave.

Open: For lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers $3.25 to $7.95; entrees $4.95 to $8.95

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Call: 410-367-5808

Food: * * *

Service: * * *

Atmosphere: * * *

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