A 'Great Little Spot', But Don't Pop The Cork Yet

DINING OUT

November 15, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Champagne Tony's, 1006 Light St., (410) 685-8822. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, closed Mondays. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair accessible: no.

You can't get a bottle of champagne at Champagne Tony's, at least you couldn't when I ate there. You'll have to settle for red snapper and crab in a buerre blanc or pollo saltimbocca. Actually, that's not quite true: The restaurant, which doesn't have a liquor license, has an agreement with a nearby bar. It will deliver a bottle of wine from an extremely limited list. (The bill is separate.)

There's no Tony at Champagne Tony's either. The owner and chef is Paul Santi, and his nickname was given to him when he was a student at the Baltimore International Culinary College. The menu he's put together for his new restaurant is a combination of champagne tastes and Grandma's Italian cooking.

The downstairs dining room is a little more downscale than you'd expect with such an ambitious menu. It's perfectly pleasant, a narrow room with seven tables and a high-tech jukebox. Still, the exposed brick wall doesn't look artful enough; it just looks exposed. And the door in back could already use another coat of paint. But my only real complaint is that there's no no-smoking area, even though Champagne Tony's has another dining room upstairs.

Keep in mind that whatever I say about the food -- or for that matter, the liquor license and the non-existent no-smoking area -- may well have changed by the time you read this. Champagne Tony's feels like a restaurant that hasn't quite found its feet yet.

Take the bread. You're about to eat a meal with some pretensions to haute; you don't need a heavy, dense bread packed with cheese to go with it. It didn't, for instance, make sense with the cold antipasto ($6.95), a handsome arrangement of Italian meats and cheeses with marinated artichoke hearts and mushrooms nestled in a radicchio leaf. Plain Italian bread would have worked better.

Speaking of working, a first course of fried eggplant ($4.25) didn't. The fried eggplant was layered with chopped black olives and pesto and topped with provolone. Then the whole thing seemed to have been deep-fried again. It was dominated by the olives and a sharp marinara sauce.

A salad of herb-marinated green beans ($3.95) turned out to be a few green beans on a salad of lettuce and radicchio drizzled with a very oily dressing.

Stuffed crepes ($4.95) are a better bet, although there was no asparagus as promised on the menu. The small crepes, rolled around fontina, zucchini and prosciutto, were arranged on a red TTC pepper sauce that had a garish color but tasted fine.

Up till now our meal had been somewhat disappointing, but our main courses were much better. Entrees are wisely limited to a few pasta dishes, a couple of steaks, two chicken dishes, three veal and four seafood.

The tender veal scaloppine ($12.95) was enhanced by a faintly sweet, wine-dark sauce with minced hazelnuts. Braised cucumber and chopped red pepper helped create an artful-looking plate. While you might argue that oven-roasted potatoes with rosemary was a pretty heavy starch to have with the veal, we enjoyed them. And the bundles of julienne carrots and green beans tied with a scallion were charming.

The flavorful chicken breast roasted with herbs ($9.95) had been boned and stuffed with a forcemeat of dark meat. Whimsically shaped like a pear, it sat on a bed of buttery risotto.

A thick swordfish steak ($12.95) could have done without the faintly unpleasant shrimp mousse it was stuffed with, but the fish was beautifully fresh and a suave lemon-butter sauce went well with it.

Dessert are made in house, and all are in the $3-to-$4 range. The best bet: a cannoli made from Grandma Santi's family recipe, with a crisp shell and a smooth ricotta filling with pistachios and chocolate chips. The three-nut pie is no slouch either: densely rich with pistachios, pecans and almonds, it had a semisweet chocolate coating on top. Equally good was a three-layered chocolate cheesecake, so rich that even a dainty slice was hard to finish.

It's hard to make any generalities about Champagne Tony's. The food shows promise, but it's erratic. This is a great little neighborhood spot. (A couple of single diners were allowed to linger at their tables reading as long as they wanted to, and customers clearly knew each other and enjoyed having friends around.) But Champagne Tony's is pretty expensive for a great little neighborhood spot. It's not fixed up enough for a special-occasion place; but with most main courses in the $10- $15 range, it's not exactly where you'd go for a quick bite either. Still, I've eaten enough dull, expensive meals at other places to wish Chef Santi well: His creativity balances out the ups and downs of the meal.

Next: Bistro 300

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