Down-home Goes Upscale

DINING OUT

August 23, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Wayne's Bar-B-Que, Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace, (410) 539-3810. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.

Last April W. Brokke's in the Light Street Pavilion turned into Wayne's Bar-B-Que. Same owner. In fact, Mr. Brokke has had a restaurant in this spot since Harborplace opened -- it was the Soup Kitchen before it was W. Brokke's.

Now as you might imagine, a restaurant that serves barbecue in Harborplace isn't quite as down-home as your favorite roadside spot. Think of it as a place where you can order Evian with your barbecue pork sandwich and no one will bat an eye. Where gourmet European crackers are served with your crab soup. Where champagne is available by the glass.

Here's a perfect example of what you get at an upscale barbecue place: a first course of Cajun shrimp puffs ($6.75), shrimp wrapped in puff pastry. This is actually not bad -- the dish would be super if the kitchen could figure out how to bake the pastry long enough without overcooking the shrimp. (The plump shrimp were fine, but their wrapping was doughy.) I'd dispense with the honey-mustard sauce; it's an odd choice with the buttery pastry.

So here you are, sitting on the restaurant's terrace looking at the harbor, a gentle breeze blowing off the water. You order your glass of champagne and, say, a BBQ ribs & chicken combo RTC ($15.50). You've decided on your choice of Wayne's homemade's barbecue sauces -- tangy honey mustard for the chicken and the traditional family recipe for the baby back ribs. So what do you get?

The plate arrives with a chicken breast and wing covered with honey-flavored mustard or perhaps mustard-flavored honey, plus slices of jalapeno pepper. Beside it are the ribs topped with a sweet, ketchupy barbecue sauce. It's better if you don't think in terms of traditional barbecue: There are no complex flavors of smoke or fire infusing the meat here, just chicken and ribs that happen to have some sauce on them. That's OK, I wasn't expecting a hickory wood fire in Harborplace; but I did think the french fries that came with the dinner were inexcusable: pale, limp and unappetizing. It wasn't until I got home that I realized I never got the country coleslaw that was supposed to come with the chicken and ribs dinner.

Maybe because of the volume of business, there were a couple of instances of carelessness like that. It's hard to believe that the catfish dinner ($9.95) isn't supposed to be accompanied by tartar sauce or a wedge of lemon. The fillet itself is fresh and moist in its light golden crust; it just needs a little something more than its bed of cilantro-flavored rice and the sliced zucchini and yellow squash. And no bread of any kind was served with dinner.

What Wayne's does best is what it's always done well.

First, soup. While the chef draws from a selection of more than 200 recipes -- the legacy of the original Soup Kitchen -- this evening the only choice was Maryland crab ($4). The menu proclaims that it won the Critic's Choice Award for the best crab soup in Maryland. It's loaded with crab and fresh vegetables (the kitchen could peel the carrots and it would be even better); the seasoning is a welcome change from the ubiquitous Old Bay.

Then, salad. Caesar salad for one ($3.95) is made with crisp, fresh romaine, homemade croutons and a mild, creamy dressing, and sprinkled generously with Parmesan. And the same good homemade desserts are offered that I remember from past incarnations: a moist banana-nut cake filled with whipped cream and strawberries; a dense, spicy Shenandoah cake.

Crab cakes turn up in several guises on the menu. I decided I wasn't ready for a blackened crab cake, but I can recommend the regular version. Served as a sandwich on a good egg bun for $8.45, it's plump and full of backfin. With it were more of those terrible french fries and a little cup of Aunt Elizabeth's corn relish, which I didn't like much and which would have gone better with the barbecue anyway. (Speaking of go-withs, I tried to get an order of Wayne's white baked beans ($1.50) but the kitchen had run out. It had also run out of corn bread. This was reasonably early on a Sunday night.)

My conclusions? Wayne's Bar-B-Que is good for the same things the restaurant was always good for -- not for its excursions into down-home cooking. But keep it in mind when you want to eat at the Inner Harbor. The view from the terrace is every bit as fine as any at Harborplace, and it's at least marginally easier to get a table because Wayne's isn't as well-known as -- say -- the American Cafe or Phillips. Plus Wayne's serves breakfast starting at 9 a.m. seven days a week.

Next: L'Auberge

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