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The votes are in: Mason-Dixon is a lunchtime winner.
The tag line of the fun, new Mason-Dixon Cafe and Bakery is "Where the North meets the South." But in the interest of full disclosure perhaps it ought to read: "Where the reviewer meets the restaurateur, who happens to be an acquaintance of his."
Imagine my surprise when I dined at the recently opened breakfast and lunch spot in the Bowman Center and learned that its young chef/owner is none other than Kelly Hunt, one of my cooking rabbis. (You know, one of those individuals who gladly suffers the culinary questions, doubts and general anxiety that comprise your cooking life and is able to offer insights, quick fixes and last-minute rescues.)
Hunt for several years was chef/team leader at the Fredericksburg Wegmans seafood bar. Of course, back then providing answers to inquiries, no matter how far afield they might have been, was part of her job description. But that never stopped her from always going the extra mile, like that time a half-year ago when I'd had a devil of a time opening Cherrystones at home for a clams-on-the-half-shell appetizer. I needed to know whether there was any truth to the rumor that clams are apt to be more cooperative if kept in the freezer for a half-hour or so prior to being assaulted with a clam knife.
"Let's see!" she said before darting off for a handful of bivalves from the grocer's seafood case as if it were all in a day's work. "I'll let you know how it works out," she promised.
At Mason-Dixon, which has but a few tables and an interior that looks as if it had been decorated by food journalist Mark Bittman, aka "The Minimalist," Hunt is butcher, baker and sandwich maker. The menu features, along with a few salads, the perfect trifecta of comfort food--soup, sandwiches and baked goods. In fact the fare, with its slightly different twists on old favorites, is reminiscent of what once was offered by chef Daniel Battista at his now-shuttered Old Town Grill on Caroline Street.
On my first visit, on Election Day eve, I ordered that day's special, "the Justin," a steak sub with feta cheese and tzatziki sauce, along with house-made potato salad and a mocha-white-chocolate-chip muffin with fresh-brewed coffee for dessert. I don't care which side of the Mason-Dixon line you fall on, or if you're a red-stater or blue-stater, this was a lunch that would have gotten your vote.
The next time I stopped in I had the broccoli-cheese soup with the daily special, a Reuben dog--corned beef, kraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on a frank--with a side of slaw and a "chocolate pastry" (think handheld pie, or a chocolate croissant with a firmer crust), a meal that gave the sitting incumbent steak sub a run for lunchtime supremacy.
When the little eatery experienced an unexpected 3 p.m. lunch rush, Hunt handled things with her customary aplomb. Now, when she's getting "slammed" or is "in the weeds," she no longer has to take time out from her grill duties to direct a patron to the proper aisle for Lemon Basting Oil.
Of course, I used to be one of those interrupting customers. "Those clams finally did open," Hunt said when she saw me recently, referencing the mollusks she'd once put on ice for me. Oh well, Wegmans' loss is our gain. And even better, now it's not against the rules to tip her.
Kurt Rabin: 540/374-5000
Soup: $4 (with cornbread)
Sandwiches: $6-$9 (includes one side)
Hot dogs: $3-$4
Kids' menu: $2-$4
Beer and wine availableThe Scoop: Good food and good service at reasonable prices, in Art Deco-style warehouse/office site a mile from downtown with plenty of parking Payment: Major credit cards accepted