Excellent Sunday Brunch at Overlooked Locust Point Neighborhood Bistro
Every city’s dining history can be plotted, at least vaguely, on a time line, be it by trends in the kitchen—the first (Szechwan) and second (Thai, Vietnamese) waves of Asian cuisine, the nouvelle cuisine blip, the small-plate craze—or locations. Back in the Reagan years, gentrifying restaurants opened in Baltimore’s rowhouses, warehouses, and other historic structures. Sprinkled throughout the city, these casual and cozy joints, with their exposed brick and ceiling fans, fresh flowers, and mimeographed handwritten menus expanded the fabled urban renaissance into neighborhoods beyond in the Inner Harbor.
A few of these spots are still around, looking much the same as they did back then—Bandaloops in Federal Hill, Butchers Hill’s Morning Edition. Overhauls have majorly spiffed others up, such as Red Star and Regi’s. And some, such as the Soup Cellar and the Soup Kitchen, which moved to Harborplace, exist no more.
Hull Street Blues Café (1222 Hull St.,  727-7476), over in Locust Point, looks about the same as it did back during the first Clinton administration. Never trendily decorated, it has weathered well. The front bar shows evidence of regular upkeep, and the main tile-floored dining area, the Commodore Room, takes on, not oppressively, a nautical theme. The staff is ready for company; it’s a nice place to be.
Somehow, however, even with all Locust Point’s recent development—and probably to the great relief of its regulars—Hull Street Blues has lost its featured place in the city’s collective dining unconscious. The menu has evolved into a foursquare, midrange pub menu of crab cakes, steaks, sandwiches, and occasional seafood- and chicken-pasta dishes, the kind of food you’d be content with on any given Thursday.
But it’s Hull Street’s long-running and popular Sunday brunch, an all-you-can-eat $14.95 buffet, that is the real overlooked find. This buffet is not one of those exhausting hotel-restaurant affairs, where you load 37 items on a dollhouse plate. It’s more modest, a dozen or so hot items in chafing dishes and room-temp selections such as fruit and pastries on serving platters. Freshly made French toast and pancakes are available to order.
And some items available—a smoked bluefish, poached salmon—are exceptionally good. Here you encounter a great middle ground of breakfast food that is entirely satisfying without being necessarily innovative or special; only a very few options—such as a vegetarian red beans and rice dish—don’t look appetizing at all. As is always the case with a breakfast buffet, pig-out intentions are quickly undone, and $14.95 ends up being a perfectly precise amount to pay for what you take in.
Absolutely start with a flaky buttery biscuit, which tastes like the work of a native Southern cook. Or warm up your own fresh bread in the tabletop four-slice toaster. Butter is on hand—but, curiously, no jam or marmalade. Although plain scrambled eggs here are fluffier and warmer than what’s normally found in a chafing dish, the bacon was wobbly and not crispy enough, and the sausage, disappointingly, were bland nuggets. For meat lovers, thick slices of baked ham are the thing to have here.
Otherwise, devote your attention instead to that bluefish; careful smoking and delicate peppering strips it of its oily and overbearing flavors. Nifty little dill sauce, too. The salmon has been poached simply without fanfare, and delivers true and gentle flavor. Save room, too, for the eggy and fluffy French toast, spiked with Grand Marnier on a recent visit, and consider doing without the run-of-the-mill pancakes, especially if they’re flavored with peanut butter, as they were this particular Sunday.
For the finish, consider a tiny sliver of terrific pecan-chocolate pie. Intensely dense and toothachingly rich, a sliver is all you could possibly handle. Throughout, exceptionally diligent service from the smiling waitress (kudos to Phyllis) kept the table clean and water glasses and coffee cups filled.
Hull Street Blues has survived all these years by eschewing fads, refusing to wallow in nostalgia, and sticking to such hospitality-industry basics as caring about customers and keeping the premises shipshape. It’s simply one of the best surviving examples of Baltimore’s first flowering of neighborhood restaurants.