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Belly Up

Midtown Mistake

Buttery's Replacement a Monument to Mediocrity

Monument Café

This location is closed

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 7/25/2001

Sadly, I must speak to you of the Monument Café (531 N. Charles St., [410] 234-8010), which took the place of that venerable Mount Vernon institution, the Buttery. All of Baltimore, it seemed, awaited Monument's opening. I cruised by regularly as planned opening deadlines and proposed chefs came and went. Finally, on a warm Sunday, my wait ended. Would that it hadn't.

A server escorted me, C.C., our pals Collin and Raquel, and Raquel's sister Judi through a front room in mid-rehab, past the bar, and flicked on the lights to an otherwise empty and thoroughly dreary dining room. Paintings are often used to brighten a restaurant, but the art here had a nightmarish quality that unfortunately presaged the meal.

We thought we'd share a couple of the hearty-sounding appetizers to begin. The vegetable antipasto ($7.50) sounded wonderful on the menu--"[m]arinated grilled eggplant, button mushrooms, red pepper, pepperoncini, black olives, and provolone on a bed of greens with balsamic vinaigrette." Here's what wasn't on the plate: mushrooms of any kind, olives of any kind, pepperoncini, or balsamic vinaigrette. We weren't exactly sure what the dressing was, but we do know it appeared twice more in the course of the meal, once as Italian dressing on Collin's side salad and again as sesame-lime vinaigrette on Judi's main-course salad.

The stuffed portobello mushrooms ($8.50) were a bit better, if no more true to the menu description. It--there was only one mushroom--was supposed to be stuffed with spinach and veggies, but we couldn't detect any spinach, and the veggies were only zucchini. Topped with fontina cheese, the fungus was served over a very tasty roasted-tomato broth, which was the highlight of the first stage of the meal.

Judi chose a salad for her entrée, so we persuaded her to complement it with the soup du jour, here labeled the "chef's daily gourmet," and on this day vegetarian vegetable ($3 for a cup, $4.50 bowl). Since our server (nice guy, terrible waiter) said the soup had a veggie-broth base, we were a bit surprised to find it oily and tasteless. The "vegetables" consisted almost entirely of zucchini, which a few shards of green bean, carrot, and celery failed to liven. Still, Judi's soup was better than her main course, a sesame-lime chicken salad ($8). Again, the menu copy tempted--"oven-roasted chicken over napa cabbage, spinach, spring greens, with sesame-lime vinaigrette, topped with chow-mein noodles and cucumber relish." The reality: no cabbage, no spinach, no noodles, no relish, just more of that ersatz generic dressing.

C.C. bravely tried a real entrée, Chicken Pasta Degas ($14), purportedly penne with poultry, portobello slices, and scallions in a Parmesan-butter sauce. If you think 14 bucks is a lot for chicken and pasta, just consider that 1) the penne turned out to be linguini, undercooked and clumped in spots; 2) there were no scallions or portobello slices; 3) no one could detect a Parmesan-butter sauce; and 4) the chicken was black. OK, the lighting was dim in there, but I'm telling you, the boneless breast was burnt. On the plus side, if you're a fan of sun-dried-tomato halves (I'm not), this is your dish--the plate was covered with them.

I had higher hopes for Collin's and Raquel's choices; I'd always figured a sandwich was pretty hard to ruin. Collin's veggie bean burger, the Warhol ($7), tested my theory. One and a half pale patties were stuffed inside each of two pita halves, naked. There were a couple of slices of lettuce and tomato on the plate, but no side dish--no fries, no chips, no pasta salad, no anything. He even had to ask for mayo. So did Raquel, whose turkey burger ($7) arrived burnt, dry, and, without its promised pesto mayonnaise, tasteless.

Inspired by spotting a man wearing a fez that week, and always ready for falafel, I tried the Imperial Fez ($7.50), which purported to be a stuffed-pita sandwich with the aforementioned fried-chickpea patties plus lettuce, tomato, onions, and the sesame-seed sauce tahini. Given how the meal was going, I thought I was prepared for anything, but it came as a shock to look inside my pita halves and discover not falafel but something remarkably like Collin's veggie bean burger. On the upside, the onion was missing; I was in no mood for it after seeing a spotted, shriveled bit of onion in my friend's salad. But I was hoping for the tahini, which was nowhere to be found. Finally, I asked our server to bring me some.

He paused, seeming perplexed, then said, "I'll make some right up!" Five minutes later he returned with a bowl of something that, in the dimness, looked purple. Collin and C.C. shuddered, but the rest of us dipped our pinkies in for a taste.

"It's ketchup," Raquel pronounced. "Ketchup and mayonnaise."

"Hmm. With a drop of soy sauce, I think," added Judi, always on the lookout for the exotic.

We masticated in silence. The room was hot, the music was deafening, and cigarette smoke--which doesn't normally bother me--was burning my eyes. We finished, paid up, and raced each other out the door. Never had this job felt more like, well, a job.

Open 7 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.

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