Sitting on the cool patio at Donna's at Cross Key's, enjoying a fine dinner of gazpacho, Moroccan-spiced lamb meatballs and bouillabaisse, I got to telling my friends about the old days at Donna's. These friends weren't living in Baltimore back in 1992, when it all started.
"You know," I told them, "no one was dipping bread in olive oil before Donna's started it." I'm not sure they believed it. I'm not sure I believe it, but that's how I remember it.
If you've forgotten 1992 — I know I have — Bill Clinton was elected president, the Orioles played their first season at Camden Yards and Michael Keaton was Batman. It was also the year that Starbucks started its great expansion. Coffee bar culture was getting huge, except in Baltimore, where it was slow to catch on.
Then, in the final weeks of 1992, Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch opened Donna's Coffee Bar in Mount Vernon's Park Plaza Building. The original Donna's — the opening menu consisted of sandwiches, soups and salads — was always more of a cafe than a coffee bar.
Either way, Donna's caught on, and quickly.
Within three years, there were four Donna's Cafes, two full-scale restaurants, a sandwich shop and a couple of coffee kiosks in malls. There are two Donna's these days, one in Charles Village and the other in Cross Keys. The original location was lost to a fire, and Crivello and Hirsch decided not to commit to another 10 years in Columbia when their lease was up last year.
Donna's changed dining in Baltimore. No one was doing roasted vegetables in Baltimore until Donna's did it. Those roasted vegetables and the Sicilian tuna salad are among the handful of original items still on the menu at Donna's at Cross Keys. There are actually a few more of those classics, including my all-time favorite, the pan bagna, on the menu at the Charles Village location.
The two locations have their own longtime executive chefs — Andy Thomas at Charles Village and Ian Stanford at Cross Keys — and somewhat different menus.
Both menus still carry Crivello's stamp. From the start, Donna's menu was rooted in Crivello's love of and immersion in the cuisine of the Mediterranean. At Cross Keys, you can certainly see how that's inspired individual menu items like a crab-and-ricotta cannelloni and chicken Milanese. But, these days, you can see the Mediterranean influence more in Stanford's approach to cuisine, which is at its best when things are zesty and piquant.
And when the food is fresh and good, it's perfect for the setting, a long and wide patio adjacent to the simple and contemporary main dining room. You're tucked away here among the lush landscaping of Cross Keys, a planned community originally developed by the Rouse Co. in the 1960s. (You know you're in a Rouse joint when it takes you 20 minutes to find the restaurant's front door.)
There's an approachable wine list to help ease you into the verdant splendor, not to mention a couple of snappy cocktails like a Sriracha margarita and a basil martini.
The fresh air made us hungry for salads, and Donna's has smart ones. There's a basil-scented salad of crunchy roasted cauliflower and pine nuts; another assembled simply with local kale, tomatoes and feta. Our favorite was a superbly satisfying summer salad composed of arugula, roasted potatoes, bacon and fresh peas, topped with a disc of fried goat cheese.
There were other things we liked — a bouillabaisse, full of good seafood and fresh vegetables in a deeply flavorful tomato broth; and a sterling gazpacho, topped with slivers of fresh avocado, in which the diced vegetables retained a pleasant crunchiness.
Served on creamy polenta and tossed with pine nuts, onions and tomato sauce, the Moroccan spiced lamb meatballs were a heavyish entree, though. They would have worked better in a reduced format as an appetizer. And by this time, we had had our fill of golden raisins, which were also in the cauliflower and kale salads.
A pappardelle verde entree was not good. The homemade pasta was undercooked and the ingredients — greens, tomatoes and smoked mozzarella — came across as random. And the whole thing lacked flavor. The menu mentioned red pepper flakes, and their absence was a problem.
It turned out that we came to Donna's on one of the rare nights when Crivello herself wasn't there. That might have had something to do with the pasta dish and with the service, which was a little unfocused for a place with entrees in the mid $20s. At those prices, I want the appetizers cleared before the entrees come out.
And I don't want the check brought while I'm still enjoying dessert, especially something as good as the warm blueberry cobbler Donna's was serving on this cool summer night.
Rating: Three stars