I once spent two years working in the bowels of a government building, photocopying binders of documents and sitting through Kafkaesque meetings about the importance of "synergy" and "process." The only thing that kept me from bludgeoning myself with a hole punch was when I would take my lunch break in the courtyard. I'd stare off into space, wistfully dreaming about my fantasy job of opening a café. "It will be a cute little coffee shop," I'd tell myself. "I'll serve simple, good food, maybe have some live music. It won't be fancy and won't make me rich, but it will be my own."
For every discontented soul who has ever had these thoughts (surely I'm not the only one, right?), Corvid's Cafe offers a preview of what lies down the less-traveled path. Tucked away on a quaint south-city side street (just a block from the old La Tropicana Market, may it rest in peace), Corvid's is the realization of a dream for owners John and Cindy Panian. The husband-and-wife chefs had been operating a catering company next door for eight years before they had the opportunity to make the corner spot their own. When it became available, the family of three (their daughter, Magdalena, is also a fixture at the restaurant) jumped at the chance to create its vision of a neighborhood gathering place.
Named after a family of birds that includes the magpie (Magdalena's nickname), Corvid's is the quintessential corner café with a cozy interior (fireplace, overstuffed couches, local artwork) and sidewalk seating in the warmer months. On any given day, patrons can find Cindy working on her laptop at one of the tables inside, while Magdalena creates Lego masterpieces in the corner. An apron-clad John delivers pizzas to the cadre of regulars who gather around the hearth, and neighbors file in and out for a quick cup of coffee.
The food at Corvid's is uncomplicated café fare. The spinach-artichoke dip is the standard creamy classic, although Corvid's tops this appetizer with a layer of molten mozzarella. The spiced black bean dip was true to its name, laden with so much garlic that it tingled my tongue with a soft burn — a good thing in my book. I would have preferred, though, for the dish to be served at room temperature as opposed to straight-out-of-the-refrigerator cold.
My favorite appetizer on the menu was the savory cheesecake, a rich yet fluffy wedge that, enlivened with roasted red pepper, was more evocative of a crustless quiche. It was an excellent twist on a dish that we have come to associate with dessert, and it paired well with the "Sunny Spinach" salad — a sweet and savory mix of baby spinach, red onions, dried cranberries and apricots, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and Gorgonzola cheese. My only complaint was that the heavy dose of poppy-seed dressing made the light salad heavy.
Corvid's Cafe purports to serve the "Best Grilled Cheese Ever" — a bold, yet possibly true, statement. Buttery multigrain bread is stuffed with Gouda, provolone and cheddar cheeses. This alone would have made for an outstanding sandwich, but the kitchen adds creamy spinach dip and oven-roasted plum tomatoes for an over-the-top spectacle. Corvid's chicken salad is equally excellent — large chunks of seasoned chicken breast come tossed with pecans, grapes and tarragon-infused mayonnaise. It's served on a pretzel croissant — conceptually exciting, although it loses the flakiness of a traditional version. Aside from this minor point, it's some of the best chicken salad in town.
Since the Panians' catering company is called Crabcakes Creative, Corvid's signature "Crabwich" was a must-try. I must confess I have a stylistic preference for broiled crabcakes with less breading, but Corvid's version is good for what you can expect so far from the Chesapeake Bay. The crabmeat tastes fresh, without the slightest hint of tin and fishiness that besieges most crab that's served this far inland. With very little filler other than panko, it's more like a crispy crab fritter. The crabcake is served on that pretzel croissant (on this dish I appreciated its firmer texture, although the malty flavor overtook the delicate crabmeat) with oven-dried tomatoes, arugula and a spicy ancho-chile sauce. It may not take me back to Maryland, but it is a worthy effort.
I was less impressed with the Mexican pizza, which tasted like something I could get from the frozen-food aisle. The crust was thin and crispy, and average salsa stood in for traditional pizza sauce. It arrived sprinkled with some spiced black beans, tomatoes, canned jalapeños, mild chorizo, and cheddar and jack cheeses. At first, I thought that it was missing some finishing touches — a little housemade guacamole or some sour cream — but in hindsight all those would have done is mask a boring pizza.
"Who loves baked potatoes?" Corvid's menu asks. Answer: This lady. Unfortunately, on the night I visited for dinner, Corvid's dressed-up spuds were not available. The kitchen created a cheesy baked-potato casserole as a substitute, but it just wasn't the same. The casserole consisted of party potatoes, jazzed up with pieces of red pepper. Had they stopped there, it would have been fine. But they topped the dish with crumbled potato chips that lost their crispness when heated in the oven (there is a reason why cornflakes are the garnish of choice, my unsophisticated side doth say). I would ask for them without superfluous add-on the next time around, although I will more than likely order the citrus potato salad as my side instead. The sweet and Russet potatoes, lightly tossed in a zesty lemon dressing, were the perfect sandwich accompaniment.
I skipped dessert because, at this point, Corvid's brings its selections in. While I understand that a little corner place can only do so much, I look forward to the day Corvid's adds housemade sweets to its lineup. Once that happens, I'll need to find a new restaurant concept to dream about. Mine will be taken.