Some restaurants wrap their arms around you and murmur a private vocabulary in your ear. They have tastes in food and behavior that seem as correct to you as the perfect perfume. Others are more workaday, like a dress that will "do." They're not romantic, they're not material for the movies, but are for nights when you're hungry for food and comfort, and don't want to work hard over the ceremony of dinner.
For some diners, Bolongo Bay may be the first sort of restaurantbut for me, it's the second. I have a soft heart for idiosyncratic rooms. Bolongo Bay's are not in any way distinctive. They're modern and simple, dressy with brass railings, and casual with a couple of stained-glass panels portraying parrots. (Bolongo Bay is in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.) The contemporary building fronts on Ritchie Highway, a few miles north of Annapolis. All around it, an office complex called River Reach Center rents to businessmen who can rely on the restaurant for business lunches and dinners.
The menu is not Caribbean. In fact, the name of the restaurant is possibly a mistake, diverting attention from a solidly Italian, French, Continental kitchen that focuses on fish, and makes more than a passing nod to pastas.
As it happened, our favorite first course was a pasta dish, linguine with smoked salmon and caviar ($7.95 for a half order). The pasta was exceptionally good, and the sauce -- plain, unreduced heavy cream -- had been applied sparingly. One might think small black fish eggs and chunks of smoked salmon too rich a combination, but in practice they worked well together, in part because neither had been heaped on grossly.
We also liked a coarse, humble house pate containing a husky share of liver. (It was unavailable as a separate order, but was listed as an appetizer on a complete dinner menu called the plat du jour, $19.95, that offered a number of choices among appetizers, entrees and desserts.) Unfortunately, some accompanying olives were the pallid, California canned sort, spooned wet onto the plate, where they drained into the pate.
Further accompaniments were a startling quantity of mustard spooned into an upturned radicchio leaf, and a row of spiced crackers, whose texture and spicing, in my mind, never make the proper foil for cold, chopped meat. (Really, one wants a first-rate French bread, or pain de mie, with pate.)
Our third appetizer was a red snapper and lobster bisque ($3.50), which submerged lovely chunks of lobster in a too-thick, too-salty reddish soup.
A salad, part of the plat du jour, consisted of fresh lettuce --ed pTC with a grated tasteless cheese, and dressed with a mixture that seemed to be five parts vinegar, one part oil -- odd proportions. (Fine vinaigrettes are surprisingly rare in restaurants.)
Our best entree was an excellent grouper special($15.95) -- a firm, perfectly cooked fillet of grouper sauced with tomatoes, peppers and onions sauteed and stirred together in a butter and wine sauce. A sizable pepper steak ($14.95) looked like good meat, and was handsomely presented under its thick coating of coarse-cracked peppercorns, but how did it taste? No knowing. Was its demi-glace and brandy sauce interesting? No knowing. The pepper obscured all niceties of flavor, all saucing subtleties. A tuna steak cooked Cajun-style in spices (the plat du jour menu) was similarly fiery.
Had we known ahead of time that two of our three entrees were going to be very hot, we probably would not have ordered a $25 wine -- Etude, a pinot noir from the Carneros Valley. We liked what we could taste of it, but with so much pepper, we would have happily settled for beer, which is cheaper and wetter. In any case, we chose our wine partly keeping in mind an order of veal Marsala. After we finished our first courses and my friend had eaten her salad, she was told the kitchen was out of veal. Poor timing.
We admired a couple of vegetables on all our plates, a glorious globe of deep-fried pureed potato and some fresh, not-too-hard, not-too-soft green beans.
Cakes brought in from the outside were middle-quality desserts, without seductive syrups, and without confident flavors. A chocolate mousse cake ($3.95) looked marvelous, with twists of chocolate coiled in its frosted edges, but there was nothing past surface beauty: The chocolate was a shadow of the real thing. Frangelico cake ($3.95), similarly, lacked what by name it required: the scent and taste of hazelnuts.
Service had rough edges. Our waitress removed two dinner plates, for example, when a third person at the table was still eating dinner. Seemingly unforgiveable. Yet, when prices are moderate, it seems fair to overlook some gaffes.
Bolongo Bay, 760 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park, 544-2011
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10:30 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Accepts: * ** /-
Features: French and Italian cuisine