Just like the visionary art museum it shares a building with, Baltimore’s Joy America Cafe is a deliciously quirky experience.
Next time you tie up in Baltimore, consider taking a brisk walk-or an easy water taxi ride-to the south side of the Inner Harbor. There, looming over a sharp bend in Key Highway, is the American Visionary Art Museum-a marvelous celebration of what used to be called “outsider art.” It now goes by the kinder and more flattering moniker of “visionary art”-essentially, the work of self-taught artists whose creations express some kind of unique personal vision. Stylistically, that can range from huge junkyard constructions covered in severe biblical admonitions to quietly beautiful paintings and meticulous matchstick sculptures from the mind of a lifelong heroin addict.
It makes for a mentally gymnastic few hours, which is bound to work up an appetite. That’s when you go to the third floor and the Joy America Cafe-another adventure in eclecticism from brothers Spike and Charlie Gjerde, arguably Baltimore’s most daring and successful restaurateurs. It’s a fairly small and sparsely decorated space, but inviting just the same: a single room with a couple dozen tables, simple white tablecloths, modern brushed-bronze chairs (more comfortable than they look, it turns out) and a handful of vaguely naughty paintings on the walls. Stretching entirely across the north wall of the room is a giant arch of a window that offers a commanding view of the easternmost Inner Harbor-looking across to the new Marriott hotel, the Sylvan Learning Center and beyond that, if you could see through buildings, Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood.
But the view will distract you only so long from the culinary experience that’s about to wash over you, beginning with, just for the heck of it, a lovely little plate of raw string beans and carrots, marinated button mushrooms and jalapeno slices, all lightly drizzled with balsamic vinegar and accompanied by a small plate of cayenne-peppered peanuts. After admiring the handmade menus-which are pieces of folk art in their own right, each with a bead-adorned twig affixed to its cover and decorated throughout with quirky icons and stickers-you’ll see that there’s a distinct Latin beat to this gustatory music. Even the section titles are in Spanish (Antojitos, Sopas y Ensaladas, etc.). But there’s plenty of basic comfort food mixed in too. The brunch menu, for example, goes from “Vegetable Fritatta” to “Buttermilk Pancakes” to “Tres Queso Quesadilla” to “Buttermilk-fried Chicken Sandwich” without batting an eye.
For our brunch visit I tried the brie-mushroom-artichoke omelette del dia, which rendered me docile and ridiculously happy for the rest of the day. My sweetheart Becky had a similar reaction to the aforementioned three-cheese quesadilla (fontina, jack and queso chihuahua). In a previous dinner visit, I’d been bowled over by a handsomely presented mesquite-grilled rib-eye steak, topped with two paper-thin slices of caramelized tomato and surrounded by bite-size potato wedges, wilted spinach and shiitake mushrooms-all with the subtly delicious zing of the orange-lemon-garlic marinade the steak had bathed in before hitting the grill. Becky had the roasted salmon entree, a somewhat fussier presentation, but nonetheless interesting-three orangey-sauce pools, each with its own golf-ball-size black-eyed-pea fritter, and in the middle a mound of spinach propping up a long, narrow slab of salmon.
“Oh my,” she said as she chased the last few remnants of salmon across her plate, “it’s just so sad that this has to end!”
It hadn’t ended, as it turned out, because there was still dessert, and . . . good heavens, I can scarcely find the words for what our charming and attentive young waitress put in front of us-three handmade doughnuts, as delicious as they were homely (just blobs, really) and served with a splooge of dipping chocolate and an espresso cup filled with mousse and whipped cream. I didn’t know what to eat first and what to dip in what, so I just dipped everything in everything, and that turned out to be just the right strategy; every bite was a delirious build-your-own-eclair experience.
When it was over, I wasn’t just sad; I wept like a baby.
Joy America Cafe is on the third floor of the American Visionary Arts Museum at 800 Key Highway in Baltimore (just east of Federal Hill Park on the south side of the Inner Harbor). The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, 5:30–10 p.m.; and Sundays for brunch, 11 a.m–3 p.m. Appetizers $7–$10; entrees $9–$26. Major credit cards accepted. 410-244-6363. Museum admission not required.