Joy American Café · Sotto Sopra · Zodiac · Holy Frijoles · Corks · The Wild Mushroom · Jr. · Ruby Lounge
Located atop the American Visionary Art Museum, Joy America Café (800 Key Highway,  244-6500) is Baltimore's landing zone for food trends: From Southwestern chile rubs to Pacific Rim aiolis to the currently hot "architectural food constructions" (or, as we call it, "tall food"), it's been done here first (sometimes to humorous extreme: one early specialty was "Citrus and Pumpkinseed Seared Antelope with Virginia Ham and Brussels Sprout Succotash"). And while we find it amusing that a museum devoted to exposing the work of underappreciated and often dirt-poor folk artists houses a pricey, trendy restaurant at which said artists undoubtedly could not afford to eat, we do commend Joy America for its energetic and innovative approach to Serious Food.
Sotto Sopra (405 N. Charles St.,  625-2642) has all the trendy trappings, from the elegant archwork, black-framed mirrors, and subdued lighting to the amusingly long 'n' skinny breadsticks that come with the de rigeur bread and olive oil. But the kitchen does some serious heavy lifting, with homemade-pasta dishes that mix nouvelle-Italian creativity with a heft that would do any Little Italy chow house proud (especially the hearty straccheti with a dazzling symphony of wild mushrooms), plus lush salads and sensuous desserts.
Zodiac (1726 N. Charles St.,  727-8815) is one of the freshest new players in the Baltimore food world and a welcome addition to the Club Charles/Charles Theatre neighborhood. Asian, Latin-American, and French influences can be seen in this eclectic menu, which offers ambitious entrées (garlic- and herb-encrusted tenderloin) and inventive light fare (gourmet burgers, individual pizzas with creative toppings). The dining room is lovely with its art deco leanings and gorgeous zodiac mural, and the clientele is oh so young and hip.
Holy Frijoles (908 West 36th St.,  235-2326) is one of Baltimore's newest Latin-flavored eateries and already adored as much for its retro dining room as its innovative take on Mexican food. The Hampden eatery's trick is to take a predictable classic, such as salsa, and transform it with creative additions, such as corn and beans, into a sweet and pungent taste treat. The magic works with every item on the menu, from born-again veggie burritos to creatively spiced chiles rellenos.
The wine list at Federal Hill's Corks (1026 S. Charles St.,  752-3810) reads like a novel--full of drama, promise, suspense, and a terrific cast (in the neighborhood of 200 selections). But if Corks' heart is in the wine cellar, its head is still in the kitchen, thinking up tasty nouveau twists on old standbys such as trout and pork chops. Awaiting you at meal's end is a knee-trembling bread pudding that can easily feed a table of four.
The Wild Mushroom (641 S. Montford Ave.,  675-4225) is a perfect symbol of the changing neighborhood that is Canton. Four years ago the restaurant opened in what was once a corner bar with a fungicentric menu that was anything but East Baltimore, featuring the likes of Portabello pizza (the mushroom serves as the crust) and mushroom ravioli. A new menu goes up on the chalkboard every 10 days, featuring creative meat and fish entrées along with vegetarian fare. With a warm atmosphere and a little bit of attitude, the Wild Mushroom paved the way for similar eateries and watering holes in a part of town that is becoming tragically hip.
Spike and Charlie's, famous for high-priced, ultra-haute American cuisine, has spawned Jr. (1501 Bolton St.,  462-9064), a downscaled bistro that takes surprisingly after its forebear. The food boasts plenty of Spike and Charlie flair--corn-crusted salmon cake with beets and wasabi aioli--but the prices are more traditional, at $10 and under. This is a popular neighborhood hangout, a place to take a bottle and share it with the table next door.
This just in from the in-the-know folks in New York and Los Angeles: It's time to stick a fork in the whole martini-lounge fad--it's done. No matter. The Ruby Lounge (800 N. Charles St.,  539-8051) remains B'more's premiere see-and-be-seen nosh-and-sip spot. Perhaps the main reason is the inventive board-of-fare that unabashedly mixes nationalities, flavors, and formats. (The roast duck is to die for, as is the ravioli). And so the Tanqueray flows and we backwards Baltimoreans raise a chilled cocktail glass to our own provincialism.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201