Hangover Helper: Dishes at Carma's Café fail to live up to their good looks

The Saturday morning of Halloween weekend found me considerably hazier than normal and in major need of some breakfast, stat. So I quickly checked in the mirror to ensure the previous evening's face paint and glitter were (mostly) cleaned off and headed north to Carma's Café (3120 St Paul St #7, [410] 243-5200, carmascafe.com) in Charles Village searching for sustenance.

I quickly found the charming little café and headed downstairs to place an order and score one of the coveted outdoor tables. The place was already buzzing with Hopkins students and neighborhood regulars when I got there, so the wait to get food was less than optimal (about 40 minutes), but the good coffee—they even have a low acid option—and the considerate fleece blankets that Carma's offers its outdoor guests on chilly days made the wait a bit less unnerving.

It should also be noted that Carma's doesn't have a liquor license, so don't make any plans for any hair of the dog at this brunch spot, unless you sneak in some airplane bottles—not that I've ever done that.

When the food finally did arrive, it looked wonderful. Unfortunately, the flavors didn't match the looks with most of the things I had, which was disappointing considering that everything was so fresh and, I was told, made in-house.

The menu is split between breakfast items—handmade granola, a bagel and lox platter, breakfast sandwiches, and more—and lunch options such as soups, salads, and various sandwiches and paninis. I decided to stick with breakfast.

Carma's features a daily frittata special ($7.25) and I decided to go with the mushroom, brie, and thyme option (there was also southwest chicken), which came with a side salad or toast. The large slice of egg-y frittata came out looking light and fluffy with streaks of melted brie layered throughout. The first bite was lacking any discernable seasoning other than a very faint hint of thyme. Even the brie was too faint, without enough pungency or saltiness to make up for the general lack of flavor (I don't remember seeing any mushrooms either).

Sadly, the mushroom and parmesan breakfast risotto special ($9) fared similarly. A large bowl of hearty risotto came spotted with green peas and earthy brown slices of mushroom with two bright-white-and-orange poached eggs laying atop, but once again the taste didn't hold up to its looks.

The poached eggs were overcooked just enough to frustratingly not allow the yolk to run down into the rice, there was once again a lack of any seasoning, and while the mushrooms were a highlight of the dish, the parmesan cheese that was advertised was barely discernable. I regret not asking for a salt and pepper shaker, or at least some hot sauce, to salvage the dish. The side of pumpkin curry soup ($3.75) was so watery and lacking in taste that we couldn't finish it—a rarity for me, as I'll usually choke down anything.

The breakfast sandwich ($5.95) on the other hand was the lone beacon of light. A large and well-toasted everything bagel bookended a mound of thick slices of fried, locally sourced ham that had been slathered in a healthy dose of homemade pepper jelly. The ham was equal parts crispy and salty in the best way. When that pepper jelly finally laid its spicy/sweet combo onto my taste buds, it was a bonafide "holy shit" moment. I want that stuff on all breakfast sandwiches moving forward.

When paired with a cup of Carma's thick tomato and basil soup ($3.75) for dipping, the meal made for a more amped up version of the traditional tomato and grilled cheese combo. The bright red soup was rich, full of umami from the tomatoes, and balanced with the bite from the basil. And it brought me right back to the simple meals of my youth, when mom always knew what hit the spot, and didn't care how fancy the ingredients were.

Overall though, the sandwich wasn't enough to salvage the meal, which I found frustrating because everything I ordered just needed a bit more (or any, for that matter) seasoning to let the obvious attention to good ingredients and thoughtful combinations shine. And while I didn't leave upset with my choice—the vibe itself is so nice and chill it's hard to be upset about anything at Carma's—I left hoping that this was the exception and not the rule.

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