Saturday, March 17, 2012

Breakfast for Lunch at Miss Shirley's

I first learned of Miss Shirley's when I encountered their food truck in Fells Point. I was quite pleased to learn that they have a sit-down restaurant in the Inner Harbor just a few blocks from my office. Located in the Constellation Energy building on Pratt Street across from the Power Plant, Miss Shirley's is in the same building as a professional colleague I've had the pleasure of working with at two different jobs. So, with the weather in Baltimore on the cusp of true summer this week, I made Friday lunch a two-for-one treat and met my work buddy for lunch.

For the uninitiated, Miss Shirley's is named for Shirley Dowell, a long-time presence in many Baltimore kitchens until her passing in 2001. There are two locations in Baltimore - Roland Park and the Inner Harbor - plus one in Annapolis. Each location features a pancake of the month (announced on their Facebook page), making Miss Shirley's the area's breakfast and brunch hot spot. Their website notes that proper attire is required, a touch of civility that my generation, with our proclivity for athletic wear and flip flops, seems to need every now and then.

The first thing I noticed about the Inner Harbor location was the efficiency. They have a spacious sitting area and a sign at the hostess station clearly stating that parties will not be seated until all diners are present. This helps keep the dining room moving at a consistent pace as it prevents partially-filled tables from languishing in restaurant limbo - occupied but not ready to order. This is purgatory for waitstaff, and enough of these half-tops can throw a lunch rush into the weeds remarkably quickly. So, Miss Shirley's gets marks from me knowing how to keep things moving.

And this is necessary as they are busy. They do not accept reservations, which also makes sense as the general public is notoriously unreliable (see the previous paragraph). All seating is first come, first served. But, with the aforementioned efficiency, people keep moving. As I waited for my buddy, a line never really formed as diners were seated almost immediately. The only folks waiting were people like me who were expecting friends.

The menu is a blend of traditional Baltimore fare with just a touch of the eclectic to be interesting without crossing over into culinary disaster. The lunch menu features item like the Hog Wild - a pulled pork sandwich on a challah roll served with classic coleslaw and fried pickles, the Eastern Shore Po Boy - fried oysters, bacon, and mixed greens on ciabatta, and the Pratt Street Cheeseburger - a half-pounder topped with a fried egg.

Breakfast is served all day, and the menu is equally creative. Classics like steak and eggs and chicken fried steak come with fried green tomatoes on the side.

And then there are the pancakes. In addition to the monthly feature flavor, he menu lists five typical varieties - banana, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, and chocolate. They come three to a serving, dusted with powdered sugar with a side of real maple syrup. While I did not have any, my buddy raved about them and ordered some to take home to her daughter.
Crab Cake and Fried Green Tomatoes Eggs Benedict

We both ordered the Crab Cake and Fried Green Tomatoes Eggs Benedict - $19.99 on the day we were there.  The traditional poached egg is served atop a mini crab cake with a corn-battered fried green tomato replacing the English muffin. This is ingenious. Once the tomato is coated with batter and fried, the cornmeal forms a firm golden shell that takes the weight of the egg and crab cake. Until you cut into it, releasing the sweet, juicy tomato, providing a wonderfully bright note to what is often a heavy, oily dish.

The crab cake at Miss Shirley's is also fairly light with a gentle had on the Old Bay and the filler. It had a true crab flavor - a little rich, a little sweet - and broiled, not fried. (Personally, I think the fried crab cake is a culinary atrocity. The cake picks up too much oil which compromises both the flavor and the structural integrity.) Nothing compares to a perfectly-broiled crab cake with a nice browned crust on the outside and fresh, unadulterated meat inside. Miss Shirley's got it right.

They also got the poached egg spot on. The egg had the shape and feel of eggs poached directly in the water and not in one of those poaching contraptions in which the egg is placed in a metal cup inside a pan of boiling water. This bain marie approach to poaching eggs rarely results in a nicely-cooked egg.

Lightly cooked asparagus and a spicy corn relish rounded out the dish. A hollandaise sauce topped everything off that was a true condiment. It accented the food without overpowering it. While I remember enjoying it at the time, it was so unobtrusive that in retrospect I cannot recall the specific details other than it was creamy and blended into the dish perfectly. And this is how a condiment should be in a dish with so many other wonderful flavors and textures - a complement.

And, a final note on efficiency. Total time from seating to payout was 45 minutes. At no point did the service feel too rushed, nor did we ever feel forgotten. Perfect for the office worker to get a decent meal.

Open at 7:00 AM during the week, I may have to take advantage of their take-out window in the future. As we continue to move into summer and we are pulled out of the office and into the sun for lunch, Miss Shirley's will definitely be added to my list of lunch spots.

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