People are talking about Sisson's, but they are saying all the wrong things.
I've heard about its beer, made on the spot in the Sisson's micro-brewery and available in refillable half-gallon "growlers" and whopping Imperial pints. But as I'm not a beer buff, I didn't pay much attention. Its name also crops up when Cajun food is mentioned, but as blackened fish isn't my favorite dish, it was easy to give it a pass.
So why hasn't anyone mentioned that Sisson's has turned into one of the best moderately-priced restaurants in Baltimore? Our meal was excellent throughout, and one dish -- the oyster pan roast -- ranked with the city's most celestial mouthfuls.
From the street, Sisson's looks misleadingly dim and bar-like, but there's an attractive dining room tucked to the side, for the folks in search of more than ale. The tables have copper tops, the rafters are lined with an international collection of beer bottles, and the walls are decorated with nautical art. There's also a picture-window view of the brewery operation. It looks like a place for good, imaginative bar chow. But it's more.
When we dipped into the appetizers we realized what a find we had lucked into. The gumbo du jour ($3.75 cup) featured seafood and Louisiana-style sausage in a thick, coffee-colored brew of penetrating smokiness, flavored with a complex blend of spices. This was voodoo soup, mysterious and irresistible. And then there was the (sigh) oyster pan roast ($6.25) -- fat, juicy oysters in a pale saffron-hued cream, rich and intense, flavored with a little tomato and a lot of magic.
Nothing could top it, and nothing did. But the rest of our meal held to a high standard. A medley of monkfish and mussels ($13.95) poached in ale and lime had a built-in spice kick that wasn't immediately apparent, but made an impression. The spices involved in the Cajun sampler ($16.95) were more demonstrative, but the dishes involved, Cajun steak, blackened catfish and shrimp etoufee, had the virtue of all tasting different. The steak was excellent; it was tender, and the spice mixture, which had a distinct fennel note, set off the flavor of the meat. The shrimp, too, had the character to stand up to their darkly spicy sauce, which resembled the gumbo broth. But while the catfish was tasty, it had no flavor except that contributed by its bold peppery coating.
Desserts are made in-house, and, like the other dishes, combined the sophisticated and the down-home. The bread pudding with apples was mellow and homey, a good foil to the spicy food, and my companion adored the linzer torte, which offered spice, sweetness and tartness in a well-balanced blend of cinnamon-spiked pastry, raspberry jam and fresh raspberries.
Where: 36 E. Cross St.
Hours: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V
Features: Cajun and Creole specialties, New American cuisine, home-made beer
Non-smoking section? Yes