It's a Gift
York Road Eateries Offer a Tasty Shopping-Trip Break
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Growing up in Dundalk, I used to think the neighborhood decked itself out in twinkling lights every Christmas just for me. As dusk arrived, stars appeared on lawns, wreaths sprouted on foil-wrapped doors, spotlighted Santas stood poised on roofs. Even though we only celebrated Hanukkah in our home, I used to feel my own pulse quickening with the excitement of the yuletide season. Forty-odd years later, Christmas dazzle still fills me with joy.
Another joy of the season, of course, is dining out. Old friends are back in town, the gang at work wants to celebrate, or maybe you just need a respite from all that shopping. This week, let me give you a gift: the scoop on a pair of very pleasant eateries with good food, good prices, and my favorite beverage policyBYOB.
At the Garden Spot Café (22 W. Allegheny Ave.,  583-7367), a bistro in busy Towson, you can lunch on salads, sandwiches, and wraps, or choose from a seafood-heavy menu at dinner.
The appetizers here are meals in themselves. We are in awe of the stuffed eggplant florentine ($4.95) placed before us. Incredibly thin slices of eggplant are lightly breaded and fried and piled high, alternating with layers of fresh spinach and fontina cheese, the whole topped with a chunky tomato sauce and a scattering of parmesan shavings. Wow. And our stuffed portabello-mushroom appetizer ($6.95) is a treatit mates the meaty fungus with tiny shrimp, crab meat, and smoked muenster cheese. Each bite brings together flavors smoky, salty, and almost sweet.
Soups at the café are fresh and lightimportant if you have more holiday shopping to do after your meal. Our cup of Spanish chicken vegetable ($2.95) is good, the New England clam chowder ($3.25 for a cup) better. Dense with mollusk and light on cream, it really hits the spot.
From among the entrées, we choose a grilled Black Angus sirloin ($14.95), which is nestled on a bed of cheesy scalloped potatoes and covered with slices of portabello mushroom and a Bordelaise sauce the chef says takes 48 hours to prepare. The time is well spent. One of the day's specials, a mixed grill of shrimp, salmon, and chicken ($15.95), features perfectly cooked seafood and a tender, boneless breast arrayed around a fried risotto cake. And our delicious herb-roasted breast of chicken ($11.95) is enormous, topped with a spinach-flecked risotto.
Desserts at the Garden Spotwe opt for turtle cheesecake and caramel-apple-walnut torte ($2.25 each)look and taste good, and they're sized to share. We walk out refreshed rather than stuffed, ready to reenter the holiday fray.
Further up York Road, across from the fairgrounds, J.J.'s Everyday Café (2141 York Road, Timonium,  308-2700) is anything but everyday, with a menu featuring pastas, seafood, and lots of vegetarian choices. We found the soups super herebe sure and try the Maryland crab ($3.95 for a cup), which bursts with chickpeas, limas, onions, and crab in a not-too-spicy broth. Our cup of shrimp bisque ($2.95) is heavy with shrimp, and we savor the hearty kick of Old Bay. Among the appetizers, we order a half-pound of shrimp steamed without the shells ($7.95); it makes for a searing mouthful, but a touch of sweetness counteracts the horseradish in the accompanying cocktail sauce. Sweetness echoes again in the honey-butter spread the server gives us to merrily lavish on good rolls.
Mom tries a broiled crab-cake platter with fries and cole slaw (market price; $10.95 when we visited). The pure lump cake is simply luscious. And C.C.'s pan-fried rainbow-trout filet with fries and slaw ($8.95) is big and beautiful; she tears it up. I don't know if it's because we are especially hungry when we visit J.J's, but the fries and slaw served with our seafood entrées, usually a yawn at other eateries, strike us as being unusually good. Whatever the reason, we are not complaining. The Hanukkah-Christmas season is all about miracles, right?
My entrée of choice is the broiled chopped-sirloin steak, which is smothered in onions and gravy ($7.95). The meat is a bit beyond the medium I requested, but the flavor is great, and the grilled vegetables--yellow squash and zucchini served on the side--add terrific color and crunch.
J.J.'s desserts are not homemade; they come from Ms. Desserts, so you know they're delicious. We sample a light lemon-chiffon cake ($3.75). The cake, and the whole experiencethe café's spacious surroundings, polished service, and fine yet familiar foodleave a good taste in our mouths. The visions of sugarplums dancing in my head will have to move aside to allow visions of the next pleasant meal I'll enjoy at J.J.'s Everyday.
Garden Spot Café: Open 7 A.M.-5 P.M. Monday, 7 A.M.-8 P.M. Tuesday and Wednesday, 7 A.M.-9 P.M.Thursday and Friday, 11 A.M.-9 P.M. Saturday. J.J.'s Everyday Café: Open 11 A.M.-9:30 P.M. Monday through Thursday, 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Friday and Saturday.