A Cafe Look But Not The Prices

DINING OUT

March 10, 1991|By Janice Baker

Harbor View Drive? We plebs know it as Key Highway. Address: 1221 Key Highway, on the south shore of the harbor, below Federal Hill. Factories were there; condominiums are coming in.

The building that houses Pier 500 Restaurant is outlined at night in strings of white lights like a Christmas tree. In general configuration, it looks like an amalgam of train stations, Bauhaus suburban dwellings and boating clubs, its main gestures being a gable roof, a glassy swoop around one side, and a latticework trellis on the front lawn, a lawn so new, it's still a patchwork of squares.

We approached the restaurant through the building's front doors and down a hall to the right that -- we realized later -- must circumvent the kitchen. The unrefined walls of the restaurant's L-shaped area were hand-painted in vivid green-and-turquoise leaves and vines, and in brash, jungle-flower reds. The combination sets a tough Johnny Weissmuller tone that's reinforced by pushy forte music.

There are dinner tables next to the bar (where a significant number of people smoked), down a few feet by the men's room and the waiters' station, and also by the women's room near the fire doors, which is to say, most tables are next to trafficked areas.

Chairs are comfortable but tables are bare, and the marina view is modest. In casualness, perhaps Pier 500 is a cafe. However, by cafe standards, prices are stiff. Most places, $22 for a grilled veal chop means a tablecloth.

One of my companions ordered an unorthodox meal: a cup of black bean soup with chili cream ($1.95), an appetizer special of grilled polenta with endive and wild mushroom sauce ($5.95) and a salad of winter greens warmed with chevre and herbed vinaigrette ($4.50). A black bean soup should be made with black beans. This was a cup of chili, shallow and acrid in flavor, with pinwheel circles of mild, yellowish cream over the top.

The firm, creamy and deliciously herbed and grilled polenta was unquestionably the best food of the evening, together with its rich, reddish mushroom cream sauce. Three leaves of endive tucked in at the side gave attractive texture and contrast. The salad of winter greens was essentially a salad of delicately wilted romaine -- wilted because the leaves had been warmed -- with a clean, sharp dressing of oil and goat cheese.

Our second dinner was an appetizer called "wild mushroom brulee on spinach genoise" ($4.75), followed by "grilled free-range chicken breast with lentils, couscous and black currant sauce" ($14.75). "Brulee" is French for scorched, but "creme brulee" describes a lovely custard with a glazed brown-sugar surface. A "genoise" is a French butter spongecake. Is a wild mushroom brulee scorched wild mushrooms? Or mushrooms with brown sugar on top? Or what? Is a spinach genoise a spongecake made with spinach? We were served an extremely bland spinach custard, topped by mushrooms, topped by a Cheddar-cheese-colored, severely acidic egg custard, heated under the broiler.

The halves of chicken breast were pleasant, but chili powder had made its way into the accompanying lentils, and the couscous was sweet and wet, not fluffy. There were also small green beans and tiny shafts of carrot, but because the plates were cold, the vegetables were cold.

I ordered an appetizer of oolong tea-smoked duck with apricot coulis and coriander pancakes ($5.75), and an entree of pan-roasted lamb rack with roasted garlic and prunes. Once NTC again, it wasn't clear what the menu words meant. Was the duck smoked in oolong tea? If so, it may as well not have been. It was dry and tasteless. Next to the duck on the plate were some squiggles made of apricot jam, a scattering of pork rinds, fine-cut green onion stalks, and oddly stiff pancakes without the taste of coriander. Influences were clear and charming: The cook must have had in mind Peking duck, served in pancakes with onions and plum sauce. However, the variation did not give serious competition to the original.

The rack of lamb was medium rare, which is what we'd asked for, but the meat tasted old. It was served with a couple of prunes, cooked garlic cloves, squares of peeled red pepper, and the sweet, wet couscous and cold beans and carrots that accompanied the chicken dish.

Happily, someone at Pier 500 has a good instinct for desserts. We ordered two from our exceptionally jocular waiter ("Hi there," he called out at one point, waving his hand. "Here's a wave! Hi!"). He said he hadn't eaten the ice cream but that he recommended it. You can't go wrong with ice cream, he said. It turned out to be excellent -- two big cream-colored scoops spiced with cinnamon and decorated with chunks of an unusual walnut praline ($4). A pear frangipani tart looked beautiful. Though it tasted not at all of pears or any other fruit, its crust was light and its almond cream delectable. *

Next: Aldo's

Pier 500, 500 Harbor View Drive, 625-0500

Hours: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Accepts: ** /- *

Features: International menu

No-smoking section: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

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