Brassy On The Outside, Classy On The Inside

DINING OUT

April 26, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

What happens if the owner of a new restaurant is well versed in traditional Maryland food but his chef is from India? When chef Peter Sunder Rao and owner Tommy Rideout put their heads together, the result was the interesting mix you find at Mariah's, which opened in December near the Westview Cinemas where a Mexican eating spot used to be.

Mariah's looks like a common variety surf-n-turf place, moderately posh and fairly conventional. But open the menu and you have your choice of Cajun food, Indian- and Thai-influenced dishes and a smattering of Italian cuisine -- as well as Maryland fried chicken, crab imperial and the like.

If the old saw about location, location, location is true, then Mariah's is in trouble. It's a bit too upscale for its neighborhood. That's probably why it isn't doing as well as it should be; passing by, you wouldn't have any idea what kind of restaurant it is. The exterior is bold and brassy, suitable for Mariah's noisy, popular lounge but offering no clue about its more sedate dining room.

The colors of the space don't sound sedate -- mauve and brick and teal -- but somehow, when they're combined with mirrors, artwork and well-appointed tables, the total effect is. The waiters are young, enthusiastic and eager to please, but the service wasn't flawless. We got our salads before our appetizers and waited endlessly for our check.

Mariah's menu is divided in two down the middle. On the left are regional dishes; on the right, a selection that's the definition of eclectic. From the latter, for instance, you can order fettuccine con cipolli for $8.95 or Thai seafood for $13.95. Heed your waiter when he warns you that the Thai dish is really spicy and ask him to modify it a bit. The stir-fried shrimp and scallops came in a sauce that was relentlessly hot but delicious: just a bit sweet, flavored with ginger and garlic, a good foil for the brightly colored vegetables and angel-hair pasta that came with it.

Chicken curry ($10.95) isn't anything like you'd find in an Indian restaurant around here, in spite of the chef's origins. Call it Continental-Indian. Boneless chunks of white meat had a smooth cream sauce touched lightly with curry; apple slices were neatly arranged near it. Mediterranean pork chops ($15.95), while not as tender as they might have been, had an herb-scented brown sauce to make up for almost anything. Fresh, cooked-just-long-enough vegetables come with each dinner, that evening a not very interesting mix of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.

To back up a bit, we started with Mariah's delight ($6.95), enough of a warm, smooth crab dip served with stone wheat crackers to feed two. A bowl of mulligatawny soup ($2.25) was thick with rice, vegetables and chicken, and delicately flavored with curry. Curry made its appearance again in coconut chicken fingers ($5.95), tender white meat with a crunchy crust and a spicy sesame sauce for dipping. Salads were uninspired, but both the Parmesan-pepper and blue cheese dressing are made on the premises and are good.

We tried some of the more unusual items; but remember, for every Thai seafood on the menu, there's a stuffed flounder or a crab cake or a porterhouse steak. It's a well-planned balance of the traditional and the not-so.

Desserts, while house-made, seem almost an afterthought. Everything we had -- a cheesecake, German chocolate cake and a slice of apple pie -- was either too sweet, too cold or a little tired. Or all three.

But, all in all, a good dinner. The food, for the most part, can't be faulted for either inventiveness, the freshness of the ingredients or the preparation. What Mariah's needs is more of a commitment to the dining room. Right now, the noise from the lounge filters up to the restaurant; and the piped-in music seems a little loud, perhaps to counteract it. Plus, when a dining room is only a quarter full, as it was the night we were there, I'd like to see the pacing of the meal be just about perfect.

Mariah's, 504 Winters Lane, (410) 788-0700. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair access: no.

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