We were a little dismayed to find the café was closing in an hour to prepare for a private function, as we’d hope to have a relaxing meal enjoying the famous view of the harbor from the huge half-moon-shaped plate glass window running the length of the café. Still, we liked the minimalist look of the place. The tables were set a pleasing distance apart, the furnishings simple and modern; the walls were painted rich pumpkin or aubergine, all set off by a painting here, a few flowers there.
The food is Latin, Southwestern, and Caribbean inspired, with quirky artistic touches. I decided on a couple of appetizers, a favorite ruse when I can’t commit to an entrée.
A gaggle of servers stood by the bar, looking every inch like the art students they undoubtedly were. What a great place to work, I thought, as I sipped a Latin smoothie (a blend of coconut milk, cinnamon, honey and strawberries) and listened to salsa. Very cool indeed.
I’d ordered hand-rolled green garlic and queso tamales, and was at first enchanted when a small plate containing two petite tamales was set in front of me. Unfortunately, the sauce-covered little darlings proved a positive nightmare to unwrap. After several messy minutes, a tiny tamale, a bit on the dry side, was revealed. I had painstakingly unwrapped the second tamale before it dawned on me that I’d been brought garbanzo tamales rather than garlic and queso.
The server was apologetic and whisked the plate away and set a new one before me. I soon wished I’d kept the garbanzo tamales, however, as I unwrapped the new tamales only to find the “green garlic” was a bit much even for an avowed garlic lover.
My second appetizer, pulled chicken and sweet white corn empanadas, was better, but again the portion was tiny, even for an appetizer. A great mound of watercress piled to the side took up most of the plate. Luckily, I like watercress.
The promotional blurb at the Joy Café’s website says the restaurant “wins raves for its attention to every detail of the dining experience.” In truth, attention to detail is what I found lacking. After we finished our meal, for example, we sat regarding our dirty plates for a good ten minutes before our server, deep in a conversation with the other staff members, came over to clear them. As I sat looking out at the Baltimore harbor, with the Charles Center designed by Mies van der Rohe in the distance, I couldn’t help but think of one of van der Rohe’s maxims: God is in the details.
March 9, 2003
From journal Feathered Fish and Sword Swallowers