About a Joy
Menu Of Mexican And Central American Interpretations Returns To Its Spirited Ingenuity
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Joy America Café at the American Visionary Arts Museum is playing at the top of its game this summer. The ongoing virtuoso performance of chef Spike Gjerde amounts to something like the twist happy ending of a culinary cautionary tale—the old one about the chef who found early (and deserved) success, flew too high, and got scorched by the sun. At one time, Gjerde and company were juggling four restaurants, of which only Joy America remains. And, just possibly, because it now benefits from Gjerde’s full attention, it feels invigorated by pride and purpose.
Or maybe it’s the margaritas talking. Better by far than the café’s punchless mojito, the house margarita ($8.50, made with Herradura Silver) is big and strong and brightens the good-vibe mood that pervades the entire AVAM campus. The dining room—dominated by a half-moon harbor-view window—comes across simultaneously sophisticated and comfortable. You feel good here, and you’d feel even better outside on the perfect patio, which had sadly been commandeered by a wedding party when we visited.
Now that Marconi’s chopped salad and ice-cream sundae are on summer hiatus, Joy America’s famous guacamole ($8.95/$15.95 double order) stands as the city’s most soul-nourishing tableside dramatic event. This intensely satisfying appetizer is constructed by spooning prime tomatoes, garlic, onions, seeded jalapeño, sea salt, and cilantro from separate bowls into a traditional molcajete and smushing them together with the pulp of a just-peeled avocado. For dipping, you alternate among homemade tortilla chips, fried plantains, and chili-cumin-lime crisps.
Even when Joy America was going through the motions, the guacamole alone was reason enough to drop by. But now the menu, inspired by the cuisines of Mexico and Central America, is more grounded in technique and earnestly assembles New World ingredients while remaining playful and modern.
Go easy on the appetizers—the guacamole fills quickly, and the entrées are massive. Think light: Hope for the special soup, a double gazpacho ($6.50) in which two chilled fresh vegetable soups are presented, yin-and-yang, in the same bowl, meeting each other halfway but never blending or mixing. An alchemist’s trick (or a bartender’s) made serious by the subtle differences in flavor between the piquant peppery green and the cucumber-cool red.
Some of Maryland’s best cheeses come from the goats at Garrett County’s Firefly Farms, and the café’s warmed panko-encrusted disc of Firefly’s mellow aromatic chèvre tops a daisy-fresh salad ($8.95) of young spinach, candied almonds, and papaya vinaigrette. Among other appetizers, pupusas, cachapas, chalupas, and ceviche tempted, but we settled on the more shareable wings of joy ($9)—fat, meaty chicken wings dressed with either a chipotle rub or a rum glaze, both served with a tiny cup of cooling crema Mexicana. Good, but not mandatory, eating.
Wild-caught Alaskan halibut starred in a menu special ($27) involving a spiky chipotle tomato sauce, drizzled chive oil, early summer squash, and a creamy potato torte. Quite a lot going on, nearly one thing too many, but everything finessed and presented well. The wild-tasting fish itself, served plain on the plate, would have satisfied me. On the other hand, a dense but smartly seasoned crab cake ($25), by no means all lump, really depended on the mellowing effect of a sweet-corn crema, a tomato-cascabel pepper drizzle, and crispy, salty yucca frites.
Only Joy America’s lamb barbacoa ($26) really felt overdone. Simply too much meat, and in need of some finer shredding, which would have made arranging it into a vertically massive adobe fortress difficult, but would have softened it up and better diffused the spices. An accompanying, gargantuan corn tamale was too big and dense.
Another reason to go easy on appetizers: the seven-tastes chocolate dessert plate ($8.25), a modernist arrangement of squiggles, spheres, and trapezoids, each one offering up distinct chocolate pleasure—sweet, creamy, spicy, and cool.
Joy America and the Visionary make a great impression on out-of-towners. It’s a restaurant worth getting excited about—and saving for. And its newfound consistency is really good news for everyone interested in eating freshly considered, delicious, and imaginative cuisine in an uplifting space.