Go For Total Experience Come Away Satisfied

DINING OUT

February 27, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Haussner's, 3242 Eastern Ave., (410) 327-8365. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.10-$10.35; entrees, $7.60-$29.95. ***

To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, you can get anything you want at Frances' restaurant.

Frances is Frances Wilke Haussner, and her restaurant is a Baltimore landmark. I know that's an overused expression, but in this case it's dead on: I bet there are people who have never heard of Harborplace who know about Haussner's and its 700-plus works of art.

There aren't quite that many dishes on the menu, but who's counting? Oysters are fried, baked, Creoled or curried. Crab is shaped into cakes or stuffed in an omelet -- and fixed every other way you can think of. You can get sauerbraten, veal Normandy, frog legs, turkey divan, elk steak or caribou. You get the idea. And with your duck with orange sauce or smoked finnan haddie you have a choice of 35 vegetables.

If you've never been to Haussner's before, picture a restaurant like no other. It has a European feel to it, with its dark paneled walls, white tablecloths and amazing art collection. Every spare inch of wall space is covered with original oil paintings, watercolors, bas-reliefs, vases, statuary, figurines and I don't know what all. You may very well find yourself eating your spaetzles with a marble nude peering over your shoulder.

It's easy to dismiss all this as kitsch; but let me point out that, according to the menu, artists like Durer, Rembrandt and Whistler are represented. I say according to the menu because there's so much, you could never find any particular work just by looking for it.

Haussner's has its own bakery; its spectacular dessert cases decorate the front of the restaurant. It has a stag bar, complete with nudes (objets d'art, that is). And a museum that contains the overflow art from the two spacious dining rooms plus my personal favorite, the 850-pound ball of string (collected from bundles of napkins when Haussner's used to have its linen laundered outside the restaurant).

In other words, Haussner's is a total experience; and if you judge it just by the food you really aren't being fair. Hence, the three stars. (For food alone, 2 1/2.) That's not to say the food is bad -- just very uneven.

Like the art, there is a gem or two if you know where to look. The fried eggplant is a Rembrandt among vegetables, with its hot, soft interior and crisp, deliciously greasy exterior. Great dumplings, if you like heavy, flavorful dumplings. Order one of each, Tyrolean (made with bread) and potato, swimming in a good, thick gravy. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea to get the vegetable platter (you choose five) with maybe the creamed spinach or creamed cauliflower, fresh string beans, stewed tomatoes, German potato salad and that fried eggplant.

I could make a meal on the potato pancakes alone -- thin, crunchy-edged slices of pure bliss. They come with sour cream, a bit of cranberry sauce and a side dish of applesauce.

Haussner's Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein is the Cadillac of Wiener schnitzels. (As you may have noticed, the kitchen has a real talent for fried foods.) The veal cutlet is tender, flavorful and not too heavily breaded. Its fried egg is perfectly done (the yolk just runny enough), and anchovies and capers lend a little pizazz.

But then the baked clams taste like chopped rubber bands tossed with garlic butter and arranged in clam shells.

Fried calamari would be just about perfect except that the kitchen has doused the crisp rings with lemon juice to the point where they make you pucker up when you eat them.

The gorgeous rolls, pumpernickel sticks and muffins turn out to be cold and tasteless. And what mind could conceive of putting chocolate cupcakes (OK, chocolate muffins) in a dinner bread basket?

Haussner's famous strawberry pie is awash in blood-red glaze and the crust is too soggy to eat.

Somewhere between these highs and lows falls the rest of our meal.

Maryland crab soup has the usual vegetables, bits of crab and seasonings. It's a perfectly respectable version, but if this was the only crab soup you'd ever had, you'd wonder what all the fuss was about.

A house salad is composed of iceberg lettuce covered with quadrants of minced vegetables: a quarter carrot, a quarter celery, a quarter cucumber and a quarter tomato. The house dressing is a predictable pepper Parmesan.

Crab Clinton involves white lumps of crab, bits of Smithfield ham and spinach over green and white fettuccine in a rich cream sauce. Not bad, but a little goes a long way.

A special of the day, a "Frenched" pork loin chop (cut so that it looks -- say -- like a rack of lamb chop), is pleasant enough, but the horseradish-mustard glaze is surprisingly sweet.

A chocolate mousse cake looks gorgeous, and a mile-high slice of coconut cake is lovely and fresh. Both are fairly tasteless.

We've sampled so much food this evening our nice waitress has had to bring it on a trolley (not an uncommon occurrence). The amazing thing is that she doesn't seem to notice. My impression is that everyone orders like a pig here, not just restaurant critics. Haussner's menu is just too tempting.

Next: Timbuktu

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