I took some friends to Cafe Manet the other day, a snazzy-looking, bright white place in Federal Hill. We arrived too soon, it turned out -- by weeks, not minutes. What we saw near the window were two tables and six stools, and our backs ached at the idea of an evening perched on stools. By telephone later, however, owner Mario Greenberg promised that more tables and chairs are on the way, and the new chairs will be real chairs. Very soon, Cafe Manet will be more fully equipped.
Meanwhile, hungry, we walked east past Cross Street Market and north up Charles to Regi's, which five years ago served a cup of Bulgar soup I remembered fondly.
Both front doors were closed. We peered in through the windows to orient ourselves: The door to the right goes to the bar, the one to the left to the dining room. Dining room? Too fancy a designation, maybe, for this simple space on the ground floor of a South Baltimore row house. Soon we were sitting at two of a dozen or so tiny, white-tiled tables -- two pushed together for the four of us. We noticed a couple of fireplaces, some bouquets of dried flowers, and handsome wood paneling in the bar.
When someone in the room smokes, everyone smokes -- there's no escaping it. One loud person makes everything loud. It's in the nature of the place. One has to be in the right mood. We were.
At the top of Regi's special menu, a printed statement reads, "At Regi's expect always good home made food -- prepared daily with market fresh meats, seafood and produce." Our appetizers testified to its truth.
Four of us ordered a cup of spinach, clam and mushroom soup with red pepper puree ($2.25), a half a Regi salad ($3.25), a cup of chili ($2.25) and chicken satay ($4.50). All were excellent. In fact, since the first three can be ordered in amounts larger than what we chose, next time around perhaps we'll dine on appetizers. Together with a glass of wine and the flavorful, substantial house sourdough bread, any of them would have made an evening's inexpensive and satisfying supper.
The soup was delicious as well as visually appealing. It combined a swirl of spinach and a colorful splash of pureed pepper over a pale brown mushroom cream. The romaine and vegetables in the salad were fresh, and though circles of pitted black olives were bland, the crumbled bacon over the top and chunks of feta were real. I always like it when the dressing comes in a separate vessel, as it did at Regi's. In deciding how much to use, one can suit oneself. What's more, it was an interesting herbal dressing that showed an instinct for when to hold the vinegar.
The bean-and-meat chili tasted classic, like spice-company-packet chili seasoning, but that's vigorous enough for most tastes, and we liked the fresh-chopped onion and sour cream over the top. We agreed the chicken satay took the prize, though, with three big chunks of intriguingly marinaded chicken, fresh cucumber, sourdough bread and a small cup of a vibrant peanut butter-and-other-things sauce.
Our main courses were more routine. My companions warned me off the only one we frankly disliked, "rainbow fusilli with black olive relish, prosciutto, mozzarella and tomatoes with balsamic vinaigrette" -- $6.75 for a "demi." I'd ordered it drawn by the black olives, prosciutto and mozzarella, but the reality was a dull, cold pasta salad, with so-so olives and cubed country ham. Marinated, char-grilled sirloin ($11.50) attracted us because beef something almost every American kitchen can handle. For that reason, we were surprised the steak came to the table cooked through. We protested. It was whisked away, and soon after, a tender, medium-rare steak appeared in its stead. Accompaniments were oiled, fresh summer squash and cauliflower, cooked to leave in some bite.
An order of paella ($11.25) was pleasant, though not exactly paella, but rather, seasoned rice, undoubtedly cooked separately, topped with mussels, shrimp, sausage and chicken. Juices and oils lay under the rice in the bottom of the dish. Best of all was a light, lean and imaginative chicken enchilada preparation ($9.95), which involved the wrapping of a large, soft tortilla around ground, seasoned chicken, with a cool, moist puree of onions and green tomatillos over the top.
One of the desserts brought in from the outside was worth ordering again, even though the whipped cream wasn't real: a brownie sundae ($3.50) that was very strong on chocolate and brownie.
At the peak of the evening, Regi's one, very able waitress raced to do the impossible. We watched and admired her courage.
1002 Light St., 539-7344
HOURS: Lunch Mondays to Saturdays 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Mondays 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., until midnight Tuesdays to Thursdays, until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday dinner 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
ACCEPTS: AE, MC, V
FEATURES: Eclectic American bistro
NO-SMOKING AREA: No
& WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.