Its Heart's In The Right Place

DINING OUT

August 16, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Jasper's, 1777 Reisterstown Road, Commercentre, (410) 486-1400. Open every day for lunch and dinner. No smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.

Jasper's is the Restaurant of the '90s, so get ready for it. It opened earlier this summer without much fanfare, but already customers are standing in lines that snake out the door, even on a weeknight. (Jasper's doesn't take reservations.) Located where the august Pimlico used to be, Jasper's bright and breezy style, moderate prices and incredible menu are bringing 'em in by the carloads.

It's a restaurant that has its heart in the right place. It wants to be all things to all people, thus its 28-page menu. Dieting? Try a decalorized Jamaican chicken and vegetables ($8.95) with wild rice and a piece of cantaloupe. Not dieting? For a first course order scallops wrapped in bacon ($5.75) served with what Jasper's calls an "appetizer portion" of french fries and an onion ring; move on to a Mexican pizza ($6.95) with a fried tortilla crust; and finish with peanut butter pie topped with whipped cream. A little short of money? You can get a lot of food here for under $10. Want to celebrate in a big way? Order a bottle of Dom Perignon for under $100.

Jasper's is a mini-chain with two other locations, one in Greenbelt and one in Crofton. But it seems to want to avoid the pitfalls of chain-food. Soups, sauces and desserts are labeled homemade. Potato skins are fresh, not frozen. It's one of the few places around that doesn't use frozen skins, according to the menu.

(It had never occurred to me that anyone could tell -- or care -- that a potato skin was fresh or frozen once it had been deep-fried, seasoned, smothered in melted Cheddar, bacon, sour cream or whatever. Learn something new every day.)

Still, I never order potato skins unless I'm eating out with my kid, so it's more important to me to have a top-of-the-line salad than a top-of-the-line skin. Here Jasper's failed me. The salad greens were uninteresting, the slice of tomato was winter-white in July, and the croutons came from a package. Our waitress promised that salad dressings were homemade, but I can't figure out why anyone would make a dressing that so closely resembled bottled Italian dressing -- and low-calorie bottled dressing at that.

Back to those scallops wrapped in bacon for $5.75. They had a pleasant, faintly sweet, faintly charred flavor; but four small scallops aren't much for the price, even rounded out with a mound of fries and an onion ring.

Instead you might want to share a first course like the crab meat dip ($5.75), creamy and hot, made with crab and cream cheese. If that doesn't sound like enough calories for you, fried tortilla chips come with it.

Stay away from the lobster bisque ($3.15 a cup). Although it had an appealing flavor, it was the thickness of the crab dip; and a crust had formed on top by the time it got to our table.

Our best dish was the Mexican pizza. The crisply fried, paper-thin flour tortilla had been piled high with beef, a spicy ranchero sauce, two kinds of melted cheese, peppers, mushrooms, olives and tomato. It was impossible to eat neatly, but we had fun trying.

We did give one of the low-calorie dinners a try. We were warned the Jamaican jerk chicken was hot and it was -- to the point where even my asbestos-tongued friend couldn't eat it. Well, that's one way to cut calories.

Our other main course, grilled pepper steak ($10.15) over pasta, sounded promising but turned out to be one of the strangest concoctions I've encountered. Strands of spinach-green and regular fettuccine were intertwined in a black bowl, then covered with slices of purple-raw beef (no, I hadn't ordered it rare) that had been marinated in something sweet. Sprinkled around were slices of roasted red pepper and mushrooms. On the side was a pool of tomato sauce topped with bright green pesto. Weird.

Two of our desserts were very much alike because they weren't chilled, so peanut butter pie tasted like soft peanut-butter-flavored whipped cream and Key lime pie tasted like soft lime-flavored whipped cream. Carrot cake wasn't bad, merely ordinary.

I've been putting off describing Jasper's because I'm at something of a loss as to how to do it. The restaurant is made up of a multilevel series of rooms. In our area alone we had fuchsia and striped walls, flowered banquettes, South American art, enormous flowering plants and Tiffany lampshades. And that description doesn't begin to do it justice.

Now about the service. Here's an incident typical of the evening: Our waitress noticed I hadn't drunk my cappuccino because it was made with a mix and topped with sweetened whipped cream. The cream and coffee had drooled down the sides and onto the mat when she set it down. She asked me, "Didn't you like the cappuccino?" I said no, waiting for her to take it away or offer me something else. But she just looked puzzled and walked away.

' Next: Wayne's Bar-B-Que

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