Nice Place, Good Food, Too Few Customers

DINING OUT

January 09, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Eager House, 15 W. Eager St., (410) 783-4268. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, Mondays to Saturdays for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $4.25-$8.50; entrees, $12.75-$22.

It's unusual for me to get back to a restaurant more than every four or five years -- it's the "so many places, so little time" problem. But the Eager House is a special case. In less than a year owner Ernest L. Murphy has made more changes in his restaurant than Elizabeth Taylor has had face lifts.

Claude Chauvin, formerly chef and part owner of the Cafe des Artistes, is in charge of the kitchen -- the third chef so far, if I haven't missed anyone. The menu has been, at various times, heart-healthy, regional American, French, higher-end and price-conscious. (At the moment the Eager House offers Maryland cuisine with a French accent, and entree prices hover around $17, which includes a starch and two vegetables.)

No matter what Mr. Murphy tries, including closing for a month at the end of last summer to regroup, the Eager House doesn't seem to get the respect -- or at the very least the customers -- it deserves. This is a nice restaurant, with good food, and it's not terrifically expensive. (The three-course pre-theater menu for $16 an out-and-out bargain.)

Who knows? Maybe this location is doomed. I can't remember the names of all the restaurants that have opened and closed in this spot before Mr. Murphy bought it. Or maybe the problem is that people just aren't coming into the city for dinner anymore -- or at least only enough to support Harborplace and Little Italy.

During the week, you feel the lack of customers. The night we were there, the manager doubled as our waiter with the help of a busboy. Everything went smoothly, but it was a little odd. It was also a bit lonely in the small, attractive dining room with its country chic decor -- barn siding on the walls, a fireplace, a ceiling hung with dried herbs. The rustic look doesn't extend to the table settings, which are as formal as the food requires.

That food might be a rosy lobster bisque, creamy and smooth as silk except for the fat nuggets of lobster meat, with just a hint of sherry. Or something called Murphy's Pie, which was nothing short of terrific. Matchsticks of peppers, onions and other vegetables and snowy lumps of crab meat had been bundled in a square of phyllo pastry and tied up with herbs. A delicate cream sauce seasoned with just a bit of Old Bay was pooled beside it.

Pastry was the base of another first course -- puff pastry that flaked gently at the touch of a fork. It was layered with lobster meat, wild mushrooms and scallions, and prettily arranged with a dark, winy sauce. If you prefer to start with a salad, the house salad is a handsome concoction of jewel-green Boston lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, little cubes of mozzarella and a peppery creamy vinaigrette.

The Eager House's menu has been pared down from when I last ate there. The new one offers five seafood dishes, eight meats and poultry, and four pastas. There's a little something for everyone, from grilled chicken tarragon for $13 to lobster with champagne sauce for $22. It's definitely food with French leanings; but a specialty of the house is crab cakes, and you can get blackened redfish and prime rib if French isn't your thing.

Those crab cakes, otherwise known as Maryland Crab Cakes Eager House, are worthy of being a specialty. Broiled and served with a creamy tartar sauce, they were golden, fat with jumbo lumps and subtly seasoned.

The manager/waiter recommended the marinated rack of lamb with garlic spinach sauce. We got three grilled rib chops, pink at the middle, which may have been marinated, but not so I noticed. They lay on a mild, pale-green puree. Good, but not exactly what I expected.

These days restaurants are serving not half a duck but duck breast boned, skinned and sliced. It's certainly healthier and easier to eat, but I have to confess I miss the crisp skin and having to work for each morsel of tender meat. And unless the duck breast is cooked rare, it tends to be a little dry. The Eager House's duck breast was served well-done. It had a fine dark sauce sparked with ginger and Benedictine, but the meat itself was pretty uninteresting.

The crab cakes were served with potatoes dauphine, according to the menu, but in fact all three of us got the same side dishes: a wedge of potatoes galette, something like a potato pancake; nicely cooked fresh green beans; and a delicious little half a plum tomato sprinkled with bread crumbs and baked.

For a restaurant that must know that business will be slow on a weeknight, the Eager House had an impressive array of freshly made desserts, all with elaborate presentations. For instance, a moist chocolate cake with a hint of raspberry filling was enhanced with creme anglaise decorated with raspberry sauce.

Raspberry sauce turns up again on top of a tart filled with the kitchen's version of English cream, something like an exceptionally creamy cheesecake filling. It was my favorite.

Only the French apple pie disappointed -- it was sweet and nothing much else. I had ordered a slice when the manager/waiter insisted that it was made with chocolate chips: That was too strange a combination to pass up. They turned out to be raisins, of course.

Next: Orchard Inn

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