Tradition With A Heart-friendly Beat

DINING OUT

May 09, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Eager House, 15 W. Eager St., (410) 783-4268. Open every night for dinner, Mondays to Fridays for lunch, Sundays for brunch. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $4.25-$7.50; entrees, $9.25-$16.50.

Those who remember the old Eager House, which had been around for 30 years when it closed in 1977, may have some preconceptions about the restaurant that's opened in the same space with the same name.

Forget them.

The new Eager House doesn't offer, as its predecessor did, a traditional menu and decor -- both are now just a little offbeat. And while the first Eager House was a special-occasion-only restaurant for many Baltimoreans, the current owner, Ernest Murphy, is trying to keep prices down. Finally, the old Eager House was the kind of place where you just didn't worry about calories or cholesterol. But some of the most intriguing dishes on Chef Christopher Golder's table have reduced fats and salt.

Interestingly, the renovation of the restaurant has gotten more .. press than the food. Local designers Henry Johnson and Bob Berman have created four distinct looks for the four dining spaces. We ate in the Loft, a rustic room with barn siding and exposed brick. (My guess is that it's most appealing during the colder months because of its working fireplace; otherwise it might seem a bit dark.) Dried flowers, herbs and baskets hang from the rafters, with artwork by Mr. Johnson's daughter Amanda creating bright spots of color. It's very different from the more glamorous Cabaret, the traditional Tavern and the clubby Back Room.

Just as you're given your choice of atmosphere, so the menu, while short, offers a range of options. There are dishes for vegetarians (like linguine Jardiniere) and traditional carnivores (a ounce New York strip). There are selections for nontraditional carnivores (grilled pork mango) and for lovers of trendy food (sauteed turkey breast cutlets on tomato garlic coulis with yellow tomatoes and black bean relish).

But the best was the simplest: an absolutely first-rate carpaccio. The tissue-thin slices of raw beef were meltingly tender, and the combination of beef, crisp French bread toast, a silky-rich sour cream and horseradish sauce, and slivers of Romano cheese couldn't have been better.

If that doesn't appeal, a Morton Street salad would be my next choice for a first course. The delicate greens are wilted with a warm balsamic vinegar dressing and served with delectable bites of fried mozzarella.

Wild mushrooms en croute would have been right up there, but the julienne vegetable garnish had been sauteed, if not quite burned, to a crisp. I loved the phyllo pastry stuffed with wild mushrooms, though, and the light sauce infused with rosemary. A very pretty dish except for the too-dark garnish.

The only out-and-out failure of the evening was Cathedral Street chowder, a murky soup that promised smoked jumbo crab meat and fresh yellow corn but delivered an overpeppery mishmash of undistinguished ingredients.

Whoever had the heavy hand with the pepper grinder was at work on the braised romaine of the turkey a la Maryland. But that was all that was wrong with this combination of tender medallions of turkey breast, lump crab meat and wild mushrooms. (The two turkey and two chicken dishes, by the way, can be found under the menu heading "From the Air.")

Almost as successful was grilled pork mango, a "heart friendly" item that made up for the lack of fat and caloric sauce with an intensity of flavors. Alas, the pork loin was overcooked and so a bit dry; but the mango sauce was fresh-tasting, fruity and tart -- an interesting combination with the vinegary sauteed peppers. Well-seasoned rice pilaf and still-crisp braised cucumber set the pork off beautifully.

For seafood we tried Maryland bouillabaisse, which worked very well if you didn't have the traditional version in mind. The shellfish and fish were fresh and properly cooked, served in a mild broth with delicious bits of grilled corn bread.

The bouillabaisse is another one of those "heart friendly" dishes, although that wasn't why we picked it and it didn't taste like diet food. If you do order these, you'll find you don't feel deprived. And you'll have room for one of the Eager House's extravagant desserts, made on the premises. With them you can easily make up any calories lost. A serving of pear-almond tart, for instance, is not one but two slices of the rich confection -- the point of one leaning up against the other, if you can picture that. The pastry tray contains all the usual temptations and more, but not any "heart friendly" choices (at least not the night we were there).

From the crusty hot rolls served with parsley butter to the freshly brewed decaffeinated coffee after dinner, the Eager House showed that it's a restaurant with promise. The kitchen didn't always deliver, but the flaws were a matter of quality control more than conception. Those can be fixed.

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