Restaurant Review: Miss Shirley’s Café
The Reign of Miss ShirleyBy Rita Calvert • Photography by Tony Lewis, jr.
Miss Shirley’s Café
It didn’t take long for the Southern spell of Baltimore’s Miss Shirley’s Café to wrap us in the comfort world of grits, bayou/Bay-o, applewood-smoked bacon, and benne seeds. Almost immediately, the aromas of breakfast, brunch, and lunch spread down the Bay to draw a line at the door of Miss Shirley’s Café in Annapolis.
From a distance, flashes of the vibrant “yield-sign yellow” of tables and umbrellas beckoned, marking the spot for Miss Shirley’s Café—adjacent to other bustling eateries surrounding the upscale Westin Hotel. Fortunately, since they do not take reservations, no long lines queued out the door on this weekday for this “crazy popular” eclectic southern comfort food spot.
“Colorful” describes the scene as well as the food with very pleasing wall palates of fresh hues including eggplant, goldenrod, and deep cherry nicely complementing each other and the sophisticated banquette textile. Visual detail is of great importance and even extends to the restroom with au courant glass and ceramic tiles in copper and ivory shades and a most contemporary flooring I’d love for my own home. And the music? Even at the peak of lunchtime, conversation was easy and the music, a nice touch of background classics.
The approach of Miss Shirley’s Café is appealing with gussied-up southern-style comfort food, which is worth every calorie. The restaurant was created by restaurateur friend, Eddie Dopkin, as a tribute to the sassy and charming Baltimore cooking icon, Miss Shirley McDowell, who is credited with training a generation of chefs in Baltimore. In Charm City, the two locations of West Cold Spring Lane and downtown Baltimore are the brunch dining institutions. In 2011 the small restaurant group opened a branch in Annapolis seeing the capital city as the next logical spot for growth on the Bay. David Dopkin, son of Eddie, now oversees all of the cafés.
As we entered, two walls were completely papered with write-ups from publications around the Chesapeake region and way beyond: The New York Times, National Geographic, Forbes, The Travel Channel, and USA Today Travel to name a few, had glowing reviews. For the latest and greatest, Food Network Magazine named Miss Shirley’s the best breakfast in Maryland for 2014.
It seems Executive Chef Brigitte Bledsoe may take a normal dish, make some major change, and then guild the lily with three, four, or five distinct bold touches of flavors, textures, and colors. Benne seeds (sesame seeds), Old Bay seasoning, and seafood are some of the most popular ingredients merging the South with the Chesapeake Bay region. Make sure to spend time perusing the lengthy menu before making a decision as there are quite a few different categories, such as 10 Year Anniversary Originals, while many savory lunch options are available as well as soups and salads. A plethora of ingredients enable you to build your own omelets or salads if a self-created design is your speed. The spirited beverages open the menu with the option to add enticing food garnishes such as jumbo lump crab meat or jalapeño-smoked bacon slices for an additional charge.
The wait staff was not just impeccable in a friendly manner, but delightful as well. Brian, our waitperson, was most engaging, thoroughly knowledgeable about the menu, and passionate about his recommendations—so refreshing in contrast to what often seems elsewhere is just about pushing what the chef wants to move. So captivating was Brian, we wound up sharing edible gardening stories with tips on soil amendments for raised beds. Left with just enough time to dine and chat, Brian would quietly appear at the perfect time to ask about our liking of the dish or offer coffee and dessert.
I had been hoping to try one of the unique stuffed Tater Tot selections, but the menu had just nixed that dish to bring on spring selections. A new spring menu had been implemented to showcase foods of the season. The menu is revived again in the fall to reflect even more comforting foods. As my party of diners always likes to mix courses up a bit, we decided to first share a side dish of Stone Ground Grits with Diced Bacon ($4.99). One can only love the grits and they make them shine in a few different treatments so it was a challenge to pick just one version. The dish arrived as a petite plate appetizer with small mountain range of coarse-texture yellow grits smoothed out with mascarpone and heavy cream. Presentation could have sold the dish alone with lamb’s ear lettuce, diced fresh tomato, and snipped chives encircling the mound of grits. Without overwhelming, the diced applewood-smoked bacon cubes infused the creaminess just enough to add interest. My friend in eating that day was a novice to this famous southern starch and is hooked now.
Next on our sampling menu was the Seafood Caesar Salad (market price). This hefty salad was lightly dressed, with a pleasing balance of Creamy Horseradish Caesar notes that were perfect for the seafood focus. So many Caesars are weighted by too much dressing and/or heavy handed on the garlic and anchovies. Still, since the dressing is sparse, some may prefer a side of extra dressing. The red and golden cherry tomatoes which pranced around the Caesar, were startlingly fresh and sweet for the time of year. A large oval of superbly crisped buttery garlic toast adorned the top rather than the ubiquitous croutons. A 6-ounce filet of perfectly grilled salmon, a generous serving of back fin lump crab and two very-jumbo shrimp completed the hefty sea trio. Sprinkled perkily over the top were very discernible parmesan shavings.
After passing a diner working on the favored Benne Seed Chicken ’N Waffles ($14.99), I was tempted by it, but instead opted for an Oscar creation. Our second entree, Shirley’s Affair with Oscar (market price), was a decadent, multifaceted dish that left one wondering where to best begin. I’ll give the architected layout: place two crisp-fried slices of green tomatoes on a dinner plate just touching a mound of creamy yellow grits. Splay a fan of lightly steamed tender crisp fresh asparagus lightly atop the grits and tomato slices. Top that with a tender 5-ounce beef center cut tenderloin. Add a handful of jumbo lump crab meat atop the filet and blanket the crab/filet with piquant homemade hollandaise. Sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley and surround with a few fresh tomato cubes. As with many of Miss Shirley’s entrees, this was bountiful enough to save some for later.
We craved a hint of sweet for the finish. Although some folks may consume a full order of specialty pancakes such as White and Chocolate Chip ($10.99) for dessert, we went the lighter fresh route with Strawberry Cheesecake Bites ($5.99). The five large strawberry halves came out festive with mildly sweetened cream cheese, goat cheese, and mascarpone dotted with a fresh blueberry. Graham cracker sprinkles dusted the plate so they could be scooped up with the richly filled strawberry. Perky mint leaves continued the dessert freshness.
After our meal, the manager graciously inquired on our experience. It was an outstanding and delicious dose of Southern hospitality.
As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. She is a blogger, photographer and advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller of The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm. After owning a successful café in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for 25 years.