CONSIDERING THAT Gertrude Stein is an almost inescapable character at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- the Cone Wing is positively resonant with her heavy, intelligent features -- it's natural to assume the menu at Gertrude's off the museum's main lobby is going to be a tribute to early 20th-century Paris, or punctuated with modern-art puns, roses or even brownies. (Tell me you remember Alice B. Toklas.)
But even though Stein briefly lived in Baltimore while studying at Johns Hopkins, the eponymous Gertrude was a much more traditional Maryland lady, the grandmother of chef-owner John Shields. The menu pays tribute not to Matisse or Picasso but to the likes of Mrs. Tawes and Miss Jean and Mom-Mom and Miss Susan, neighbors and friends and even BMA staffers. Locals, in other words, and tenders of classic Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva cooking.
Art is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
Shields, the host of Maryland Public Television's "Chesapeake Bay Cooking" and author of several cookbooks on the style, has created an unusually lengthy and versatile (and veggie-friendly) menu, one that includes not only surf -- Chincoteague-style single-fry cornmeal oysters, steamed Eastern Shore clams, crab-stuffed rockfish -- but worldy turf (Northern Neck barbecued pork, filet Madagascar, five-spice chicken with lemon grass) and vegetarian (a Middle Eastern mini-mezze, Southeast Asian vegetable curry). Even burgers come in beef, turkey or black bean.
It has a range of what it calls small and large plates, though the smalls can be fairly substantial. They're a bit uneven, however: The single-fry oysters are light and delicate, but the chicken-corn fritters are awfully bland (and the mango chutney aoili didn't so much complement as compensate) and the pancetta-wrapped shrimp with barbecue sauce and melted fontina are wearing too many layers of flavor. And the not-so-small Mt.Vesuvius Deluxe of veggie chili-spewing mashed potatoes might re-erupt through several exhibits.
Not surprisingly, Gertrude's features crabs the way Bertha's has mussels: portobellos stuffed with crab imperial; cream of crab or vegetable crab soup; crab quiche; the crab-stuffed rockfish; crab gumbo; salads with optional crab; and four types of crab cakes, including the crab cake du jour and the fusion-ish crabettes with ginger, garlic and serranos. The special versions have such flourishes as sun-dried tomatoes, Dijon mustard and Tabasco or a southwestern snap of chilies and citrus.
The result of portioning out these various seasonings is that the crab cakes tend to be a little overmixed and dense, and sometimes the crab flavor itself is diluted, but they are dependably crisp and coherent. The crab imperial, on the other hand, is just rich enough, lumpish in the best sense.
Gertrude's also offers "I Can't Believe It's Not Crab" cakes, good grated zucchini patties flavored with Old Bay seasoning and an orange-chipotle sauce.
Part of the menu works on a build-your-own system. First you pick an entree (basic choices of fish, chicken or steak), then a sauce (a surprising 17 choices) and finally two side dishes. As noted, these are more than adequate portions ("It happens all the time," assures a waiter reaching for the leftovers). The tuna, for instance, is two large triangular steaks, cooked as requested and propped against a grilled veggie melange (eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, red bells and mushrooms) skewered into a sturdy pyramid. The crab-stuffed rockfish is an unusually hefty and deftly cooked slab layered (rather than actually stuffed) with a good inch or more of imperial and bedded down on mashed potatoes and toasted pecan butter sauce.
From Feb. 19 to March 2, to complement the "Vivat! St. Petersburg" exhibits at the BMA, Gertrude's will be offering an even more one-world menu of Slavic/African American fare: caviar, cornbread blini with smoked fish, fried chicken Kiev and arctic char with collards and buckwheat kasha and a warm vodka ketchup.
It's a menu you could eat from often -- a rare pleasure in a museum cafe -- and a venue that draws neighborhood residents even after gallery hours. Gertrude's is an unusually attractive space, with windows along the outside of the L-shaped dining room that look onto the sculpture garden.
And it changes moods well: As the natural light fades and the swags of small white lights hung on the windows come up, the focal point shifts from looking inside out, and the resulting sense of open space, to a subtle feeling of cozy containment.
Gertrude's has bargain nights Tuesdays from 5 to 9, when it puts up a cafe menu of a dozen popular menu items for $10 and 17 or 18 wines at $18 a bottle. The cafe menu is also available on the first Thursday of each month, when the museum suspends its admission charge and stays open till 8.
Gertrudes's also does brunch. A biiiiig brunch. Waffles, pancakes, eggs Benedict and, of course, eggs Gertrude, a Benedict with your choice of crab cake instead of Canadian bacon.