Signs Of Vitality In Year Of Volatility


December 30, 1990|By Janice Baker

Everywhere gloom and doom. Gloom and doom in the restaurant business? Writing the "Dining Out" column four years now, I've kept track of the deaths -- the big demises (Chesapeake, Country Fare, Dominique's in Annapolis, Dominique's in its high style phase in Baltimore, Grosvenor's, JaFe, the John Eager Howard Room, the Market, Maestro's, Melvin House on the Green, in Denton, Peerce's Downtown, Trellis Garden, Vivande, the Washington Place Grill) and the small ones (Blues Alley, Cinnabar, Ehwa, Saluti, San Remo in Annapolis, Shalimar and Voila in Frederick). (Restaurant 2110 is back in business again, incidentally.)

Some of those losses have meant heavy losses to us all. Both Shalimar and Melvin House carved themselves niches others don't fill. Yet, looking back over the year, I'm struck by the essential vitality of the business.

There are too many new restaurants to list. Among them, almost a dozen are worth calling attention to. That's not bad at all, in a year when the password's been Gotterdammerung. What's more, some of the best are cheap. Is the thriving restaurant of the next five years not the steak and martini businessman's-lunch palace, but the modest, good-humored cafe? Hard to mourn, if that's the case.

Particularly when many of the better, established restaurants seem to be doing very well. When L'Auberge can serve a matchless warm pate in brioche, followed by a duck breast in lime with green peppercorns, followed by a raspberry vacherin worthy of Lutece, life isn't a bad proposition. Nor is it when Tio Pepe's offers an appetizer of crab meat and salmon in champagne sauce, and an entree of roast suckling pig. Few dishes surpass a plate of Conrad's tender, deep brown red snails in red wine with fritters, or the new Mount Airy Plantation chef's breast of pigeon, tiny green beans and rocket salad.

As it happens, most of the best new restaurants aren't really in competition with the old guard, because they're owned by recent immigrants, who are selling the cuisines of their homelands and working with less cash and less credit. The Orchard Market Gourmet Cafe & Catering (8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson), for example, is a delightful Persian cafe, unfortunately semi-invisible behind a furniture store in the world's worst restaurant location, but worth seeking out for a taste of garlic eggplant and chicken, marinated mahi-mahi, or rosewater ice cream.

The Helmand (806 N. Charles St.), another striking new place, offers the cuisine of Afghanistan. On our visit at the beginning of the year, we saw a restaurant with an excellent location, pretty rooms, attractive tables and place settings, intelligent service, and carefully prepared, interesting food. Its sweetened pumpkin with yogurt garlic sauce, spinach with beef, and leek-filled ravioli were memorable; everything we tried was both delicious and inexpensive.

Anyone with a possible passion for either roast duck in chili paste with coconut milk or stewed goat in curry sauce should explore the cuisine of Thai Landing (1207 N. Charles St.). Midsummer, the tables and decorations looked pleasant but basic, and service was chaotic, but raw exuberance and dynamic, exotic and fresh-tasting food make Thai Landing easily one of the year's smashing successes.

CoChin (800 N. Charles St.), the city's first Vietnamese restaurant, felt more consciously commercial and less rigorously authentic than the others, but on the other hand, having more tables to fill and therefore probably higher costs to meet, it may be working to appeal to a broader population of diners. What everyone can like are terrific egg rolls and very hot fresh chilies with beef.

Korea (8150 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena) is among the area's plainest, homeliest restaurants, but yet it prepares unusual fish cakes in clear broth, and makes transcendent dumplings, beef with Korean vegetables (youk hae beebim bop), and tableside-grilled pork.

The American competition? How about the Red Hot & Blue Memphis Pit Bar-b-que (677 Main St., Laurel), with a great pulled pig platter, some weird, wild, battered, fried, stacked onions called an onion loaf, barbecued ribs, beans in pickle juice, and some not-bad-at-all Karo pecan pie? Or the Tall Tale Hearth (1145 Hollins St., with its crisp-crust, New York-style pizzas and sweet potato fries?

Those with an enthusiasm for food fashions and au courant clothing to parade must have found their ways by now to Pierpoint (1811 Aliceanna St.), which sells a likable tuna salad and visually amusing Jackson Pollock-splotch desserts, and to the Polo Grill (4 W. University Parkway), where what was most remarkable last April were the sweets.

Next year? I predict neither doom nor gloom, but would love to find, somewhere, a great macaroni and cheese (with aged Cheddar, prosciutto, wild mushrooms, and fresh thyme?), or fresh salsify, or a well-dressed salad of pears and Belgian endive, or a chicken, vinegar and garlic saute, or the perfect apple crisp. *

Next: Crossroads

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