Simple Fare, Sensible Prices

DINING OUT

December 22, 1991|By JANICE BAKER

Partied out even before the party season is over? Finished with food exquisitely served by witty, scintillating hosts? Need a plain hamburger, hold the remoulade, in a simple, reasonably quiet, cheap and kindly place? Consider a meal at the Roland Park Cafe, with your own beer from a brown paper bag -- at least, until the cafe has a liquor license.

The restaurant is located in the building formerly inhabited by the Fiske Cafe. Fancy, it isn't. Four chandeliers manufactured in the '40s or so hang way up high and sway slightly back and forth under the influence of two ceiling fans. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, and music of a benign sort plays not too loudly.

We discovered it's better not to order the mousse truffle pate ($4.95). Its accompaniments were attractive -- some fresh chunks of cantaloupe, pineapple, a slice of orange and some shafts of carrot and celery -- but the liver-dominant pate had picked up tastes it wasn't meant to have.

Instead, try an order of chicken satay ($5.95). Two of the Roland Park Cafe's owners are Thai -- Iam McKechnie and Sonny Kongkraphun -- and their notions of satay are good: a whole breast's worth of chicken cut into six long strips, skewered, lightly powdered with curry, and broiled carefully with an eye on keeping the meat tender and moist. Two pleasant, sweet sauces were served to the side, one, part tomato and pineapple, the other, part cucumber and onion.

Or try a bowl of cream of crab soup ($3.25), if the restaurant happens to have it on special. It's more interesting than the usual stuff that's all heavy cream. The bechamel base tasted made from scratch with a flavorful broth, and there were enough crab shards to see and taste.

You may then want to choose from among eight salads on the menu, or 11 sandwiches. One Saturday lunch, we tried a cheeseburger ($5.45) and a vegetable cheese melt ($4.95). Each made decent, plain fare. We'd asked for the ground chuck in the burger to be cooked medium rare and got it very medium, but our waiter pointed out the kitchen had been in a state of flux since the cafe had been opened a few weeks before. An accident had hospitalized the man originally chosen to be the chef, and he'd never had a chance to report to work (proving, once again, that running a restaurant is loaded with problems).

The burger was a big piece of ground meat on a bun with lettuce, tomato, a slice of cheese and a slice of white onion. The vegetable melt was a matter of layering steamed, sliced carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes and tomato over a toasted, flattened croissant, and melting some mild, mild cheese over the top. The best feature was an attendant heap of chunky, skin-on, french-fried potatoes.

Eight dishes were listed on the menu as dinner entrees, at prices between $8.95 and $14.95. All were served with salads which, in our experience, were made predominantly of fresh iceberg lettuce. We tried two dressings: blue cheese and pepper Parmesan. Both tasted made in-house and were a couple of notches above average.

The two dinner entrees we tried one evening were not unpleasant, but not quite successful, either. Seafood jambalaya ($8.95) was described as "A New Orleans favorite," combining "fresh seafood, smoked ham, chicken, onion, garlic, tomato & rice." What we tasted was a strong dose of hot pepper in a thickish tomato mush textured with chicken that had the stringiness of poultry poached for a long time.

Chicken in garlic sauce ($10.95) should have been "pieces of white meat chicken, seasoned with garlic, sauteed in olive oil and deglazed with white wine" -- on pasta. What we were served was so aflame with hot peppers that texture was all that mattered: The chicken had the firm chewiness of the bony, cartilaginous tip of a chicken wing, while the pasta, dotted with tiny pieces of carrot, was thickly gooey. In short, what might have been a dish of lightly sauteed, garlicked chicken on pasta tended toward heavy stickiness.

Desserts were amiable but not special, made at Marinelli's in Little Italy, a bakery owned, in part, by Mr. Kongkraphun. A slice of rum truffle cake ($3) was only mildly chocolate; a triangle of pecan pie had a crust that was light but tasteless, under a standard, sweet caramel custard filling.

But that's not the whole story. Our urbane, witty waiter first suggested whipped cream for the pie. Then he returned to report that none of the cream in the kitchen was whipped. Still, he promised, one of the owners had said if we wanted some, she would whip it. We wanted some. She whipped it. Far away we could hear the rhythms of the whisk against a metal bowl.

First, we'd been treated to frosty cold glasses from the freezer for our beer. Then, made-on-demand whipped cream. There are people at the Roland Park Cafe with warm and beating hearts.

@Next: Year-end review

ROLAND PARK CAFE,

413 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 889-2233

HOURS:

Mondays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

ACCEPTS: MC, V

FEATURES: Eclectic menu

NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

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