The Main Ingredient Cafe

American
$$$$ ($15-$24)
The Main Ingredient Cafe photo
Kevin Clark/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

The Main Ingredient Cafe on Bay Ridge Road in Annapolis might best be described as the neighborhood place. In my book, there is no higher accolade.

The cafe begins serving breakfast at 7 each morning and doesn't close until after dinner. It's the go-to place for a muffin or a quick dessert, the place where neighbors meet for lunch, the kitchen that can provide dinner when it's too hot to cook at home and the friendly place for a quick bite after work. Who wouldn't want such a cafe nearby?

The women who run the Main Ingredient Cafe obviously figured that out. It started in 1993 as an adjunct to Michelle O'Brien's catering business. Through the years, other women have joined as partners, first O'Brien's daughter Chrissie Chomo, then Evie Loftus and finally Jenny Francis. Recently, Jenn Panik and Tom Hogan came aboard to help with the day-to-day operations so the original four could concentrate more on cooking and being creative.

Step inside the cool blue cafe on a hot summer day, and you are welcomed like a long-lost friend. The room is decorated simply. Pale wooden booths fill one side of the space, and several booths sit next to the front window on the other. There are several cafe tables, five stools at the bar and a refrigerated case filled with luscious-looking desserts. The rather utilitarian decor continues with vinyl tablecloths and paper napkins, but there are sprays of tiny orchids on many of the tables.

It's rare that a restaurant succeeds when it tries to be everything to everybody; the Main Ingredient is that exception. Start with breakfast, as many people do. There are all kinds of goodies for people on the go -- muffins in such flavors as chocolate chip, blueberry and apple cinnamon, homemade biscuits, fresh danishes, scones, croissants, cinnamon rolls and bagels. The Main Ingredient also offers a staggering array of full breakfasts, including creamed chipped beef over homemade biscuits, eggs Benedict, pancakes with peaches or strawberries and the favorite "kitchen sink omelet." The omelet's fillings read like a pizza menu: bacon, sausage, ham, peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese, all topped with hollandaise sauce and served with a side of hash browns.

Lunch offers just as much variety: entrees with sides, specialty sandwiches, main-course salads and wraps. Most dishes come with a choice of side salad, fries (including sweet potatoes) or pasta salad.

The meatloaf, not too lean and topped with brown gravy, is diner-good. The Hawaiian club includes turkey, ham, cheddar and marinated pineapple on a warm pretzel roll with honey mustard, a combination that sounds overwhelming, but somehow the flavors work together. The bruschetta chicken sandwich pairs a grilled chicken breast with fresh mozzarella and tomato-basil salsa drizzled with balsamic vinegar on a grilled ciabatta roll. It's so thick you almost need a knife and fork to eat it, but the bright flavors take the simple chicken breast to a new level.

Main course salads are huge. The Sultan's Garden includes two large scoops of curried chicken salad atop mixed spring greens, a wedge of pineapple and a sprinkling of sliced strawberries. The serving is large enough for two sandwiches, maybe three.

Similar-size portions make up the Craisin chicken salad: two mounds of chicken salad over spring greens, sprinkled with chunks of granola. Both salads had chunks of juicy white meat only. The curried chicken was savory without being too sweet from the fruit. The Craisin salad -- with dried cranberries -- was a little bland, needing a bit more salt.

The dinner menu incorporates some of the sandwiches and salads from the lunch menu but adds several appetizers and an array of entrees.

And every day there is a choice of at least three soups. Here, the Main Ingredient moved near the top of the list of my husband's favorite eateries with the Hungarian mushroom soup. He is of Hungarian/Slovak/Ukrainian ancestry and, in his words, eating the mushroom soup "was like sitting down again at my grandmother's table." The thick, earthy soup is rich amber in color and teeming with slices of mild mushrooms. It seems a little heavy for summertime to me, but we added a dollop of sour cream -- the traditional garnish -- to the quart we brought home, and the addition to the hot soup lightened the texture.

Most of the simpler preparations shine at dinner. For example, the crab cakes, big scoops of crab with just enough binder to hold them together, are everything the cakes should be. In contrast, the seared tuna looked great with a coating of sesame seeds and a bright red interior, but the fish tasted more cooked than its appearance, and there was too much stringy connective tissue. The accompanying wasabi mashed potatoes were no match for the regular mashed potatoes with the crab cakes.

One rule at the Main Ingredient is: Save room for dessert. The selection is amazing, and this is one place where most of the desserts taste as good as they look. The lemon mousse pie was creamy and pleasantly tart with the most elegant graham cracker crust I have encountered. The carrot cake is moist and gently spiced and topped with wonderful cream cheese frosting. The red velvet cake was a brilliant dark red but slightly dry, even with its cream cheese frosting. We hardly made a dent in the selections.

Look for the specialty cakes, all with different fillings, to take home: one shaped like a box in Tiffany blue icing, another that looked like a slice of pizza and two that looked like fluffy Shih Tzu dogs.

--Nancy Lewis (July 26, 2007)