Third Time's Yet Another Charmer

DINING OUT

January 02, 1994|By KAROL V. MENZIE

Donna's Restaurant, 800 N. Charles St. (410) 539-8051. All major credit cards. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; for dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-

$6.95; entrees, $10.95-$15.95.

Most people would rest on their laurels after opening a pair of wildly successful coffee bar-cafes within a year or so, but restaurateur Donna Crivello has never been one to abandon challenge. When the chance came to take over a space across the hall from her Mount Vernon cafe, a space that once housed BOP, the brick-oven-pizza place, she took it.

The result is a sleek and visually stimulating dining space with an open kitchen in the center, a bar at one side and that merrily blazing brick oven on the other side. White paneling graces most walls, with some touches of red and blue; and there are architect Patrick Sutton's signature touches of varnished plywood, steel and frosty glass. The room can be noisy, but there's a liveliness that's most appealing.

And the food that comes to the black-marble-topped tables suits the setting: It's sophisticated and friendly, subtle and surprising, unusual and comforting, all at once. There's a touch of California, and a touch of Provence, but the strongest accent is Italian.

Our appetizers reflected distinctly Italian flavors. Risotto with portobello mushrooms was chock-full of fungi in creamy rice. Three generous slices of perfectly textured grilled polenta were accompanied by a tasty tomato-y caponata sauce and just a dollop of ricotta.

A personal-size brick oven pizza with mozzarella, plum tomatoes and basil impressed a dining companion with its tender crust and extremely fresh-tasting ingredients. Another diner was startled when his roasted seasonal vegetables were served at room temperature, but that didn't keep him from polishing them off -- including the beets.

People who want their restaurant meals served chop-chop-chop, with no waits between courses, might be put off by the pauses here; but it's clear that the food is being prepared individually. All five of our entrees arrived piping hot. My lemon fettuccine might have suffered a bit for the delay, as it was way past al dente, but it was good, with just a hint of lemon. It and the poached salmon that topped it were admirably set off by a delicate lemon dill caper butter.

Oven-roasted chicken was crisp outside; the inside was meltingly tender, as was oven-roasted garlic lamb. Seared tuna, beautifully grill-marked, was moist and tender inside, and accompanied by a nicely fiery yellow pepper salsa. The child among us devoured his perfectly cooked grilled salmon, but sniffed that the tarragon tapenade with it "wasn't all that spicy."

When it came time for dessert, we were lucky; a large party gets to sample just about everything. Top honors went to a mile-high zuppa inglese, or Italian trifle, as light as air and full of bits of raspberry and slivered nuts, topped with ethereal whipped cream.

Chocolate cherry semifreddo, a frozen custard, was pronounced not bad by the youngster, while his mother thoroughly approved dark and white chocolate hazelnut pate with strawberry coulis. Chocolate roulade was an adult's dream version of chocolate ice-cream cake. And I had a hard time deciding which I liked better, my three-nut tart or the cinnamon cream that came with it.

The wine list deserves mention. With our meal we had a nice California chardonnay, but several of the whites are Italian, including a Pinot Grigio from Terlano, a Gavi from La Slina and a Vernaccia di San Gimigiano from Terruzi & Puthod. Reds include a Calera pinot noir, a Barbera and a Barolo from Vietti, plus some California and other selections. Prices are moderate, and many wines are available by the glass as well, including the Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine. There's also a fairly large selection of cordials and other after-dinner drinks, plus Donna's Blend coffee and coffee drinks.

In the early days, service was the least polished part of Ms. Crivello's empire, with young and attractive servers seemingly adrift in a sea of uncleaned tables. But happily that is a thing of the past. There were absolutely no problems with our meal; our table was waiting when we walked in, our water glasses were refilled and the wine was poured promptly; our waiter checked frequently to make sure everything was to our taste.

A glance around the restaurant showed staff in constant motion -- not obtrusively whisking around, but present when needed.

Finally, it's no accident that Donna's name is highly visible in the restaurant; this is very much a personal place. Diners who appreciate her particular blend of the hip, the cozy and the straightforward will be greatly rewarded.

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