By Degrees Café (415 S. Central Ave.,  522-0478, bydegreescafe.com) has been on my to-do list since it opened a little over a year ago. The chef, Omar Semidey, has worked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and at some of Baltimore’s finest restaurants, including Wine Market, Wit & Wisdom, and Fleet Street Kitchen. How exciting, I thought, to experience the passions of a guy with chops like that, who broke free of the stainless steel confines of someone else’s kitchen to create his own thing in his own way on his own time.
By Degrees, at the beginning-to-gentrify corner of Central and Eastern avenues, is not quite in Harbor East, not quite in Little Italy, not quite in Upper Fells. It contributes to the growing number of restaurants—anchored by Heavy Seas Alehouse—in an area also populated with hip co-working office spaces and gorgeous rehabs that house young professional types. The interior is spare, with about 50 seats and a small bar, with decor that features brick walls, one painted white, exposed ductwork, concrete floors, and bare wood tables and chairs. The only soft elements in the place are the black cloth napkins and the light fixtures, suspended glass urns that, combined with the loft-scaled window looking west to Central Avenue, create a mellow glow in the evening. Even so, the place is several degrees from atmospheric.
A year ago, Semidey told me that his goal is to present “regular food with an edge.” Hence the name: He wanted to shift the notion of comfort food, made with high-quality, fresh ingredients, by a few degrees. So it makes sense that the menu here is straightforward, with choices leaning toward the casual—soups, sandwiches, salads, and a few starters. By Degrees can comfortably be categorized as a cheap eat if you don’t go crazy. Salads come in two sizes ($5-$8), and the most expensive sandwich is 10 bucks. There’s a short list of “Plates,” aka more-sophisticated entrees, with slightly higher tabs, but everything is still below $20.
Semidey’s simple pairings of taste and texture do succeed in taking each dish a few degrees from the same old thing. The flatbread ($9) had lovely late-summer greens, thanks to fresh peas and a hint of mint. The chewy crust was also topped with sauteed mushrooms and creamy goat cheese, a lovely blend of flavors and color. The Brussels sprouts salad ($6, $8) was unexpectedly crunchy—raw sprouts tossed in buttermilk dressing with chunks of tart Granny Smith apples and sweet golden raisins. Almonds added a sophisticated substance to the vegetarian dish.
The oyster starter ($8) was a heap of fat ones fried to golden crunch with a peppery lemon aioli for swirling. The plate was adorned with frisee and slivers of pickled carrots. The oysters are repurposed in the Po’Boy sandwich ($8.50), served on chewy baguette. In the same way, the rare Ahi tuna, seared with a subtly spicy rub, comes either in sandwich form ($10) or on a plate, served with Brussels sprouts—this time tossed in Asian-style slaw ($17). Pork meatballs might show up in a sandwich ($9.25), with cilantro and hoisin mayo, or in a soup bowl with wilted kale and a runny egg ($17). The Cuban-style pork comes on a plate with rice and beans ($17), or on a baguette with cilantro and pickled red onions ($9.25). Even the fried cod ($17), can be plopped on one of the salads for an extra $2.50. For the same price, salads can be supplemented with other proteins found on the menu: crispy oysters, roasted chicken, and the curried chicken salad.
Semidey’s goal, it seems, is to run a tight kitchen with a selection of ingredients that can be morphed into any number of variants, and he does this with virtuosity. Flavors are appealing, and rather than feeling “been there, done that,” we left determined to go back soon for more.
So now I’ve discovered By Degrees. It took a while, mainly because there was little—beyond the industrial chic exterior in the repurposed Fallsway Spring Company building—to beckon someone in. It’s too casual for so-called destination dining, and it doesn’t offer the lively bar scene of some of its neighbors. But for those who live nearby, the café is an appealing option for an easy supper after a long workday, and folks in nearby offices could fill it up midday for its flavorful and affordable lunch. I can also see popping in for a quick bite and cocktail before or after a movie at the Landmark cinema.
The fact is, By Degrees may be a little ahead of its time. The neighborhood is starting to gentrify, with Harbor East sending shoots outward to envelop the industrial buildings and rowhouses to the north, like kudzu overrunning a chain-link fence. In a year or two, the unpretentious and hip café may just be bursting at the seams. In the meantime, put the place on your radar.