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Eat Feature

The Duchess of Windsor Diet

Michael Northrup
Shamdanai's Chicken-n-Waffle House
Michael Northrup

Eat Special Issue 2003

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Posted 2/26/2003

The saying "no woman can be too rich or too thin" is most often attributed to Baltimore homegirl Wallis Warfield Simpson, who, the evidence shows, was fabulously rich and decidedly thin. We pretty much know how she got rich (having your future brother-in-law pay off your fiancé helps), but what were her secrets to staying so svelte?

Some evidence is available to us. In 1942, Scribner published, to benefit the British War Relief Society, Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor, which compiled such regional favorites as Mount Vernon gingerbread, rhubarb cake, Lord Baltimore crab, soft Virginia egg bread. "It is the simple dishes of my homeland which are most popular with me, and which are the ones most frequently served at my table," the duchess wrote in the preface, suggesting that an all-Southern diet is the way to a wasp-waisted figure. But surely, the duchess knew a thing or two about the food of the Caribbean, having discovered the Bahamas as a playground for the rich and famous when she and her husband were exiled to Nassau. (Recently published revelations of the duchess' two-timing ways indicate that she may have simply worked off everything she ate by continually ducking around corners.)

Critics of the Duchess of Windsor Diet are fond of pointing out that Mrs. Simpson was rapacious, vain, and spoiled, but her defenders assert that this personality portrait was likely created and put out in the press by her standoffish niece, aka "Lilabet," and her archenemy, the late Queen Mother, aka "Cookie." There's no denying, however, that she was thin.

Jeannier's, located in the Broadview Apartments (105 W. 39th St., [410] 889-3303), lists among its offerings of classic French cuisine like escargots, croque monsieur, and mousse of quenelles--a poached mousse of pikefish--such New World delights as crab Lord Baltimore and New Orleans gumbo. The dining room, on the ground floor of a fine midrise building, feels timeless and comforting, an ideal refuge for discarded royalty from all over the globe.

Over in Fells Point, the more upscale Louisiana (1708 Aliceanna St., [410] 327-2610) has been impressing diners with its charming manners and a serious-minded menu of Creole classics. With its chandeliers, abundant mahogany, and formal settings, the place takes on the romantic and disreputable air of a first-class New Orleans cathouse. Louisiana is expensive, and you should insist on dining downstairs; the upstairs dining rooms lack the first floor's elegant cushioning touches.

If there's a Baltimore-based mecca for Southern food, though, it's over at Charleston (1000 Lancaster St., [410] 332-7373), where few diners have left unpersuaded by chef Cindy Wolf's cuisine, which is based in the South Carolina low country with influences from as far afield as Louisiana, Georgia, and, of course, Maryland. The menu emphasizes native-American ingredients (squash, she-crab, oysters, and rockfish) prepared with exacting European methods. The restaurant jacks up the culinary pleasure with artisinal cheeses and an extensive (600-plus) wine list. Prix fixe menus (at $58 and $75 dinners) are worth setting aside some cash for.

Celebrity chef John Shields has created a shrine to Chesapeake Bay cuisine at Gertrude's (Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, [410] 889-3399). Crab cake fans have a daily choice of three recipes and a dozen sauces (e.g., caponata, aioli), and entrées such as crabmeat quiche and Chesapeake seafood gumbo help persuade that the region's cuisine is deservedly famous. Gertrude's is especially considerate to vegetarians, who can choose from Old Bay-flavored zucchini cakes, a Middle Eastern platter, and other meat-free treats. When the weather is nice, the BMA's sculpture garden provides sublime outdoor dining, especially for the restaurant's Saturday and Sunday brunch. With his cookbooks and TV shows, Shields is as fine an ambassador of Chesapeake cooking as one could hope for.

Since all the way back in 1989, Nancy Longo's Pierpoint Restaurant ( 1822 Aliceanna St. [410] 675-2080) has been promoting the fine cuisine of Maryland in her intimate 44-seat restaurant. Her celebrated smoked crab cakes are served with Brussels sprouts and matchstick potatoes, and a Maryland style cioppino combines rockfish, scallops, shrimp, and Chesapeake clams in a meaningful fish stock. Dessert, often an afterthought in local restaurants, is given its serious due here. Longo's chocolate forks highlight a delectable chocolate-for-two sampler platter, and a créme brúlée sampler features individually baked servings of ginger chai, chocolate, and Mandarin orange.

Since seafood is such a staple of our regional cuisine, and since its presence on most menus is nearly a given, most diners understand that they don't have to go to a "seafood restaurant" to get what they're craving. Still, sometimes, the wooden floors and Old Bay aroma of a shanty-style seafood joint can give a kind of pleasure unavailable elsewhere. Obrycki's (1727 E. Pratt St., [410] 732-6399) has long since claimed for itself the distinction as the quintessential Baltimore crab house, and its fans and detractors will probably never agree on how deserved its renown is.

In Fells Point, Crabby Dick's (606 S. Broadway, [410] 327-7900) has become a success story by cannily giving tourist the kind of dockside atmosphere they expect to find in Fells Point (not to mention a retail outlet for those seeking crab-obilia). The folks behind this enterprise are full of community spirit and deserve credit for keeping their place--and the neighborhood--shipshape. The heavily promoted crab ball appetizers aren't half-bad, either.

A near-replica, menu-wise of a Park Avenue restaurant that has brought our regional cuisine to Manhattanites, City Crab and Seafood Co. (2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville, [410] 339-6300) has taken up residence in Green Spring Station a strategic crossroads location just off the JFX. The "fresh catch" selections here can be blackened, sautéed, or even-roasted in one of five preparations--for example, encrusted with horseradish and apple or dressed with seasonal pecans, leeks, and red peppers. The crab cakes here announce themselves as competitors in anyone's personal best-of list, and the dining room and bar have the leathery pleasure of a VIP airport lounge.

Our delightful pit beef notwithstanding. Maryland has never been a contender in the great American barbecue wars, which doesn't mean that there's not good Southern barbeque available here, only that we can't really claim it as an indigenous creation. This is nothing to cry over, and if not having world-famous barbecue means that Al Roker doesn't feature our city on the Food Network, maybe we're just as well off.

Suburban Northern Baltimore County is the unlikely headquarters of local 'cue. In addition to Andy Nelson's Southern Pit Barbecue (911007 York Road. Cockeysville, [410]527-1226), which presents its diners a best of the regional-barbecues cornucopia (see separate listing on Page 54), the Corner Stable (9942 York Road, Cockeysville, [410] 666-8722) specializes in tender, slow-roasted baby-back ribs.

Still, the similarly named Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon (909 N. Charles St., [410] 685-7427) back downtown has perfectly decent barbecue ribs and chicken, though it is probably appreciated more for its wisecracking waitstaff and for establishing an informal alternative to some of the immediate area's other gathering spots.

Granted, Mrs. Simpson's memoirs don't specifically include her experiences with such Caribbean specialties as curried goat, oxtail, callaloo, or meat patties, but we like to imagine her sneaking out of her Nassau Government House refuge, disguised perhaps in floppy hat and sunglasses, and seeking out some local specialties. She certainly would have appreciated the intermingling of island and Southern cuisines. Whether she would have appreciated the plate-breaking portions at Caribbean Kitchen (353 N. Calvert St., [410] 837-2274) is another story. Now comfortably settled into its new home, this Baltimore favorite operates out of a sunny storefront on an otherwise forlorn city block.

Farther uptown, not so insignificantly near some popular nightclubs, is the Caribbean Paradise Restaurant and Lounge (1818 N. Charles St., [410] 332-8422), an eat-in-or-take-out place ideally situated for nighttime revelers to coat their stomachs with jerk chicken, beans and rice, and especially the expertly prepared plantains. DJs play here Wednesday through Saturday nights, making it even more of a welcome destination.

A health-conscious Ridgely's Delight outpost, Ras Doobie de Chef Catering and Café (213 Penn St., [410] 752-3896) specializes in Jamaican cuisine, including such rarities (in these parts) as mannish water and fish tea. Curried and jerked meats, fricassees, and steamed fish round out the menu.

In a cuisine category all its own, the new and wonderfully welcoming ShamDanai's Chicken-n-Waffle House (4701-03 Eastern Ave., [410] 558-2210) serves salty and peppery fried chicken and catfish with, well, waffles in, of all places, Greektown. Blue-ribbon-deserving apple and sweet potato pies are worth saving room for.

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