Lots Of Changes, Much To Applaud

DINING OUT

March 21, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Sisson's, 36 E. Cross St., (410) 539-2093. Open for lunch Mondays to Saturdays, open for dinner every day. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$8.25; entrees, $13.75-$22.95. (Menu changes every two weeks.)

Sisson's opened a little more than 13 years ago in South Baltimore as a bar that served sandwiches almost as an afterthought. Even then, though, it wasn't a typical bar. Hugh Sisson had, as he puts it, "cut his beer-drinking teeth in England." His father, Albert, was a world traveler and international beer connoisseur. They and the other owners of the bar decided to specialize in import beers. Sisson's became known around Baltimore for them and for its beer-tasting seminars.

Four or five years after Sisson's opened, the owners decidethey needed to expand their food business beyond ham and roast beef sandwiches.

"We floundered around awhile for a culinary identity," Hugh Sisson says, "and then we found Cajun -- before it became chic." Baltimore's first bar to become famous for its import beers became Baltimore's first Cajun restaurant.

The place hasn't rested on its laurels since then. Four years agothe Sisson family bought two adjacent town houses and turned the bar into a restaurant. It opened its own micro-brewery on the premises. And as of last month the bar area was completely redone. Most important for people more interested in eating than drinking beer, Sisson's hired Bill Aydlett as chef, made him a part owner, and expanded the menu to include a variety of American regional dishes.

"Next we hope to add a second kitchen, a display kitchen, on the first floor," says Mr. Sisson. "And turn the downstairs dining area into a pub, grill and raw bar. The second floor will be for fine dining." (The kitchen is now upstairs, along with three dining rooms.)

With all the changes, Sisson's has never lost the attractive puquality it's had from the beginning. The downstairs dining room between the bar and the brewery is small and cozy. The exposed brick walls are hung with little nautical prints. The table tops are made of copper, which adds a warm glow to the room. Look up and you'll see that the ceiling beams are lined with every beer container that's ever been manufactured.

Beer figures prominently not only as a decorative motif and thspecialty drink of the house, but also in a section on the menu, "Cooking with Beer." It, along with the rest of the menu, changes every two weeks. The night we were there we could choose from ribs tenderized in beer, duck in cherry beer, and pork tenderloin marinated in stout.

This last sounds homey, but it's a surprisingly elegant dish. Thrich, tender flavor of the boneless pork was given a distinctive edge by its beer and garlic marinade. Thick slices were served on a pool of delicate, creamy mustard sauce, and they were nothing short of wonderful.

The restaurant still offers many Cajun and Creole specialties -Sisson's regulars would probably go on strike if it didn't. Oddly enough, our Cajun food was the least successful part of our meal. The Cajun steak on the sampler had a great grilled flavor but was so thin it couldn't be cooked pink as ordered. Blackened redfish was commendable because the spices didn't overwhelm the fish -- but overcooking did. Luckily the sampler included fat little shrimp etouffee in a spicy, dark sauce, so good I ended up eating it on everything.

The kitchen doesn't always overcook its fish. A rockfish fillet waperfect: moist and fresh. I wish its cornmeal coating had been crisp, but I have no complaints about its fine, spicy tomato sauce with crayfish.

Start your meal with Sisson's own hickory-smoked salmon under a cover of pretty greens; a lemon-horseradish vinaigrette adds to the salad's charm. Sisson's makes a fine, thick gumbo, boldly spiced; whether it contains sausage or scallops or chicken depends on the whim of the chef. The most unusual of our first courses was a lamb "sausage" -- actually more like a small burger. Gently charred and served with a delicate demiglace and hot, crisp triangles of phyllo filled with goat cheese, it was a standout.

As for dessert, none of ours was quite up to the rest of the meal. Sisson's has a bourbon pecan pie that should be fabulous but tastes more like molasses than bourbon. And the crust has a hot-pepper bite. The filling of an ultra-trendy tiramisu cake had the unsettling texture of cottage cheese. The best of our choices was a modest but pleasing little apricot tart.

If you like the food at Sisson's and enjoy interesting beers and wines, you may want to get on the mailing list for the bimonthly newsletter. The restaurant holds regular beer, food and wine events -- tastings and dinners.

% Next: Charles Tandoor

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