Some Saturday mornings are meant for "fancy brunch"—sparkling mimosas and bloody marys piled high with crazy garnish alongside stacks of pancakes or Belgian waffles with berries spilling down the sides—and some are meant for corner-bar comfort food that involves fluffy biscuits, plenty of pork products, and solid booze selections. A recent dismal, rainy Saturday qualified for the latter, so I headed over to the Cardinal Tavern (901 S. Clinton St.,  327-7850, cardinaltav.com), the whiskey bar that has only caused my hangovers in the past, not helped them.
Though plenty of televisions were tuned to college football (and one was dedicated to English Premier League soccer), it was easy enough to find a seat at the bar, where I promptly ordered Zeke's coffee ($4), served in individual French presses with hearty-sized red mugs and an adorable old-school glass bottle of creamer. Though the presentation is as top-notch as the coffee itself, it's a bit annoying that a by-the-cup option isn't available, meaning that, if you're a brunch lingerer, once that French press is finished, you're forking out $4 more for another. I opted to just upgrade to beer once the coffee was gone and saw Bell's Two-Hearted Ale ($6) on tap, but for those looking for a true boozy brunch, the iced coffee cocktail with Van Gogh Double Espresso Vodka, chilled house coffee, and Rum Chata checks off both the caffeine and the liquor on the brunch to-do list.
Cardinal's fried green tomatoes ($8) were the most authentic I've had in Baltimore. With just a touch of sweetness, the firm, thick slices were coated in a slightly spicy cornmeal-based crust served with a creamy, zesty stone-ground mustard sauce.
Fried chicken is what Cardinal is known for (outside of the whiskey), so ordering the chicken and waffles ($13) was a no-brainer. Maintaining the ideal fluffy-to-crispiness ratio, the plate-sized waffle was a perfect pillow for the large drumstick and breast that were dressed with a crispy and adequately spiced and salted batter. Rich, sweet honey butter served on the side made syrup necessary only in small quantities.
The traditional benedict ($11) delivers exactly what it promises in its name: a standard, well-made benedict. Perfectly toasted English muffin halves were topped with thick slices of Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and a healthy helping of hollandaise. Served with hearty chunks of skillet-browned potatoes, this is as good a version as any I've had of the quintessential brunch meal. MY only regret was that I didn’t order the version that came with those fried green tomatoes ($12).
The only disappointment of the meal was the biscuits and gravy ($8). When ordering, I had a detailed conversation with our server about the quantity of sausage in the gravy and was assured that the sauce had plenty of pork goodness. The biscuits were heavenly—airy, yet hearty enough to hold up to the sauce. Unfortunately, the gravy sported absolutely no sausage or even sausage flavor. I appreciated that our servers agreed, and whisked the dish away without a problem. It was, however, a little perturbing to overhear the owner loudly state that the gravy wasn't without sausage—it was "pureed" into the sauce. For a spot that had shown in its other dishes that it has a solid handle on how to prepare Southern comfort food well, it would have been better to acknowledge the failure than to make an excuse (who purees sausage?) for what was probably just an unfortunate mistake in the kitchen.
Pureed sausage aside, I'd take Cardinal's comfort food with its Baltimore-corner-bar atmosphere over fancy fare to nurse a hangover (or work on starting a new one) any weekend. And with all of those televisions, I'm pretty sure I'll be back for some Sunday football to go with brunch.