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Tasting happiness by the harbor


Joy America in the American Visionary Art Museum is one of Baltimore's under-appreciated restaurants. I can understand why. Its imaginative Latino-Caribbean cuisine isn't for everyone, and with so many new places opening up in the last year or so, it's easy to forget about an offbeat cafe on the other side of the harbor.

I hadn't thought much about it recently until Spike & Charlie's closed. Joy America is now the Gjerde brothers' only restaurant -- they once oversaw the Atlantic, Hudson St. Bakery and jr. as well as their Mount Vernon flagship. Only two good things came out of those closings. I had an excuse to go back to Joy America (six years had slipped by since my last visit) and, more importantly, brother Spike is now back in the kitchen. The plates seem a little more artistic; the food has a little more flair. The empanadas of the day, for instance, might be stuffed -- who knows? -- with scallops and black beans. But they will taste good and intrigue you.

On a warm summer evening, I can't think of any place I'd rather be than sitting on Joy America's second-floor terrace, sipping a margarita and watching the museum's giant whirligig turn slowly in the breeze. If water is your thing, of course, every table also has a great view of the harbor.

But on a hot, muggy night, you might prefer the dining room. Its spare furnishings work best in summer, when they feel chic, cool and contemporary. And if you can get a table near the half moon window, you have just about as good a view of the water as you do outside.

Wherever you sit, you'll probably notice that someone has ordered the house guacamole. The tableside preparation will inspire you to follow suit. It's an artful performance, involving soft, ripe avocados, subtle showmanship and various little bowls of flavorings. And the finished product tastes even better because of the accompanying flatbread, focaccia, tortilla and plantain chips.

It was a hot night, so I was hoping for a cold soup. No such luck, but the hot sopa del dia won me over anyway, with its delicately spicy broth, shreds of chicken, miniature dice of vegetables and fresh corn. A ceviche of tuna and shrimp refreshed with its chill textures and coconut milk-lime marinade. Watch out for the hotter-than-heck habanero peppers.

Most of the appetizers double as tapas, and are available for both lunch and late-night noshing. The current dinner offerings are limited and not all are as geared to hot weather as you might expect, but they are very appealing.

Boneless grilled pork was more tender than it had any right to be, with a fine charred flavor but absolutely no dryness. A roasted corn salsa added a jazzy note, with a mushroom-stuffed empanada standing in for more humdrum starches.

The line-caught halibut was not only politically correct but also a thrill for the tongue, paired as it was with lump crab and decorated with a dice of fresh mango. The hit of the evening, though, was a summer bouillabaisse with rockfish and shellfish in a citrusy coconut milk broth instead of the usual white wine, tomatoes, saffron and garlic.

I was less enthralled with the chile stuffed with quinoa, raisins and capers; the grain seemed heavy and dry compared with the delicate summer vegetables beside it. Not bad, but there are better choices on the menu.

If you don't go to Joy America for dinner, go for dessert. Desserts have always been a specialty of the Gjerde brothers' restaurants. Chocoholics take note: Where other restaurants have a death-by-chocolate cake, Joy America has a Seven Tastes of Chocolate, all on one plate -- each small pastry, sauce and ice cream more awe-inspiring than the last.

And yet I vote for the less ambitious Tres Leches of Joy, three different sorts of custard, each elegantly flavored and accompanied by bells and whistles of the edible variety.

Not to worry. For those who don't like to experiment with dessert, there is a delicious ice cream sundae layered with lots of cream, fruit, homemade sauces and candied nuts. And the whole table fought over an upscale version of bananas Foster with puff pastry, two homemade ice creams (dulce de leche and banana) and chocolate sauce.

All in all, a pretty joy-filled meal. As it should be at the Joy America Cafe.

Joy America Cafe

Food: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Where: 800 Key Highway, Federal Hill

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11.50; Entrees: $19-$32.50

Call: 410-244-6500

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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