I’m probably the last person in Maryland to eat at Atwater’s. The bakery has locations throughout the Baltimore region, and it just received a reader’s award from Baltimore Magazine. I’ve been close to its Belvedere Square location multiple times, but I’m usually immediately taken in by the deliciousness at nearby Egyptian Pizza (they have koshari! but that’s a blog post for another day) or pints at Ryan’s Daughter. I figure it’s time to give the famous Atwater’s a shot.
It’s not even noon yet on a Saturday, and the Belvedere Square Marketis already hopping. I walk through crowds of people to look over Atwater’s offerings of the day. I imagine their food options are overwhelming for most people. For a vegan, though, I find selection to be limited. The daily menu has only salads and a gazpacho. I want something heartier. It’s pretty disappointing, although honestly it’s my own fault as Atwater’s is mostly known for their soups. I could get one of their vegetarian sandwiches and hold all the non-vegan parts (cheese, spreads, etc.), but I don’t feel as though that will be an accurate representation of the food’s quality. And so I end up not actually eating at Atwater’s.
I find a different stall, Neopol, in the market area. Its display case is loaded with fish and other meats, but it is also selling a smoked-tofu salad and raw kale. It’s typical vegan fare, but slightly better than Atwater’s salads and surprising to exist at all at a place specializing in smoked meats. I’m also a sucker for anything smoked. I’m told the tofu might have honey in it, so those who don’t want to take the chance will find their options even more limited. I risk it.
The tofu tastes of warm hickory and is loaded with black pepper. There are slivers of red and yellow pepper and onion, but the flavor is overwhelmingly smoke and spice. I don’t taste honey at all. Frankly, I’m initially more concerned there’s something meaty lending its juices to the smoky taste, but then I realize it’s just liquid smoke. The tofu is nice and firm, and it is steeped in warm flavors. Unlike some places that don’t know what to do with tofu, here the cubes aren’t just raw, slimy protein that have been dumped into the platter at the last second. It tastes good and quickly fills me up. Again, for a place selling smoked meats, the tasty tofu is a happy surprise. But if there really is honey in it, I hope Neopol considers dropping that ingredient. It adds nothing to the dish, as far as I can tell, and cuts out customers who abstain from the animal-produced item.
The raw kale has an initial citrus flavor. I take a bite of something that I think is lemon and find out it is a giant hunk of ginger. Now all I taste in the spicy root; it’s not unpleasant but it does overwhelm the rest of the dish. The kale itself is pretty tender and easy to chew. I can’t taste it all now, though. I end up not finishing the side dish, more because of the filling tofu than the overwhelming ginger.
It’s a little over $9 for a helping of raw kale, the tasty tofu, and homemade cardamom lemonade. (The lemonade is very refreshing and not too sweet, but I can’t find the cardamom. Maybe I don’t know what cardamom tastes like.) I didn’t notice at the time, but Neopol also sells a vegetarian plate that appears to be entirely vegan (unless the tofu really does have honey): smoked hummus, tofu, olives, and seasonal vegetables. That sounds delicious, and I hope it’s still available the next time I go to Belvedere.
The tables are filled with people sipping wine and mimosas. I am pretentiously typing away on my laptop and see another lone individual on his computer. We give each other knowing nods. It’s a sunny, warm day; not humid and with a gentle breeze. I’m lucky to have snagged a spot outside, though I think I’m stealing it from Atwater’s. Whoops.
So, I guess I’m still the only person in Maryland who hasn’t tried Atwater’s. Maybe next time, if I can be lured away from the promise of smoked hummus and olives. Mmm. Don’t hold your breath.