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How Vary

For Charles Village Corner, A Change Is Gonna Yum

Christopher Myers

Donna's of Charles Village

Address:3101 St. Paul St.
Baltimore, MD 21218

More on Donna's of Charles Village.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 5/31/2006

The lines that separate a bistro from a café from a brasserie from a coffee bar from a restaurant—not to mention a tavern, a grill, a pub, and an ale house—blurred long ago. The thing to know about Donna’s of Charles Village is that it was for a long time one thing and now it’s another. The changes made at this perfectly located near-institution, both cosmetic and more profound ones that relate to the heart of the matter, have been all to the good, and what was a moribund, nearly useless place is now filled with life and usefulness, and is a tiny bit sexy. Well, as sexy as something is likely to get in Charles Village.

New, warmly colored wall surfaces cover the room’s dated and chilly industrial skeleton. Clean and simply hung fabric drapes over the open-kitchen window, which had been a site of unruly clutter. Better lighting and smarter fixtures legitimize the entrance bar, which had suffered badly from its double duty as the daytime coffee counter. On two separate visits, the excellent brandy-laced homemade sangría dispensed from here knocked me for a happy loop. The tables and chairs are new, too, and finishing touches are being put on the lighting and sound system. Large windows now open fully onto a well-dressed, heated patio. Even the staff is better looking, more tucked in. (Not that that matters, but of course it does—unhappy places gather the slovenly.)

These surface changes provide a clean canvas for new thinking about what it is that people want from a neighborhood space. Donna’s has brought in a new chef, Andy Thomas, with experience at Atlantic and the Wine Market. To supplement Donna’s time-tested offerings of sandwiches, salads, and burgers, Thomas has created a simple but very engaging menu of moderately priced small plates (please, they’re appetizers) and entrées (all priced in the midteens) that perfectly complement the sophisticated new ambiance. This new menu occupies a very precisely located niche—meals for a given night, offering pleasure without shouting for attention or dumbing down for comfort.

Here’s the thing, though. Today’s fresh-feeling menu is tomorrow’s stale goods. Donna’s clientele will want seasonal updates and continuous revising. Daily specials help, and Thomas has good ideas here, but I’m hoping Donna’s starts to play like the Chameleon Café and the Brewer’s Art, two restaurants that take menu playfulness dead seriously.

Absolutely keep the grilled flatiron steak ($16.95)—it’s something to come in for once a week. This hip cut needs tenderizing but often isn’t. Here it was juicy, robust, and luxuriously tender, benefiting from a patient, peppery marinade. Good garlicky hand-cut fries with aioli dipping sauce accompanied. I’d hang onto the crispy roasted chicken ($15.95), too, but only if someone rubs some butter, salt, and pepper under the skin, keeps the bone attached, roasts it hotter, or finds some chef’s way to make it the bird juicier and the skin crisper. Surely someone can.

I’m tentative about the goat-cheese ravioli ($16.95) with garlic brown butter topped with a wilted arugula salad. The pasta pillows were a tad tough, either because they had been undercooked or they had been flash-fried a moment too long in the tasty butter. Their cheesy fillings, though, were smartly seasoned, warm and mellow, and the vinaigrette-splashed arugula was very pretty. A smart dish. I’m voting off the lone fish entrée, though, a salmon fillet ($16.95) that was too prissy and tame, and looked and tasted more poached than grilled. Accompanying strips of zucchini (spaghetti) were bogged down by a surfeit of basil beurre blanc.

Keep forever the three-cheese (fontina, Asiago, and Parmesan) “mac and cheese” appetizer ($5.95), which makes great use of cavatappi pasta and truffle oil especially. The charms of Thomas’ changing variations of hand-pulled homemade mozzarella ($6.95) eluded me—I find them overly dressed awkward constructions of unresolved flavors and textures: a honey-sweet balsamic dressing, unwelcome eggplant. And undoing everything I ever said about seasonal appropriateness, a special appetizer of roasted Brussels sprouts ($4) should be brought back again and again—boy, was that good.

Some Charles Village friends who had stopped thinking about Donna’s a long time ago joined me for drinks on my first visit. They were there when I came back the second time. Change is good.

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