Good Food From All Over The Map

DINING OUT

April 10, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Aegean, 4901 Eastern Ave., (410) 633-0100. Major credit cards accepted. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays to Sundays. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95- $15.95; entrees, $7.95-$19.95. ***

One of my guests ordered calamari at the Aegean. From the name and the location (where the Mediterranean used to be), he had been expecting a Greek restaurant, and he always orders calamari at Greek restaurants. Never mind that a specialty of the house is rack of lamb en croute. Never mind that you can get a New York strip forestiere here, or veal piccata Romana. Never mind that there was no baklava for dessert, but you could indulge in fallen chocolate mousse cake. He was going to have calamari.

And very good calamari it was: more tender than most, with a golden, crunchy exterior. Of course, the menu had promised the baby squid would be served with scallion butter sauce, which sounded quite elegant, but it turned out to be the same tomato cocktail sauce you get in any Greek restaurant.

That, however, is as predictable as the Aegean gets. Even though you might expect a restaurant named the Aegean to serve Greek and Middle Eastern food, and even though the owners are of Greek descent, what you actually get is an eclectic assortment of Italian, French, Middle Eastern and Maryland (crab cakes and fish stuffed with crab imperial). There's even a light-fare section on the dinner menu, basically bar food like burgers and wings.

Nor does the Aegean look like a Greek restaurant. If you had to guess, you'd say California. The dining room (although it's a little large and unbroken-up for my taste) is very pretty. Painted cream, it's been decorated in sun-washed colors, with blond wood chairs, dusty rose on white tablecloths, and flowered draperies in shades of rose, aqua and green. Only the paintings -- sunny island scenes -- will remind you of Greece.

Only one other table was occupied on this rainy, wind-swept night, so I expected the service to be just about flawless. I was surprised to be brought my first course, an Aegean shellfish stew, long before the calamari and my other guest's oysters arrived. Do I let the soup grow cold? Do I eat it up while they stare enviously? It was a bad start, but it ended up not being typical of the meal in general.

The stew was less a soup, more a shellfish combination with herb-scented stewed tomatoes. It included plump shrimp, good fresh clams and mussels in their shells and a few fat little scallops. You could eat it with a fork.

You can get oysters or clams on the half shell for a first course, but I recommend the oysters Aegean. Four tender mollusks, spinach, lump crab meat and a bit of ricotta cheese were covered with an imperial sauce flavored with dill. The promised leeks and prosciutto weren't part of the oyster I tried, which was perhaps just as well.

Small salads came next, not Greek ones but good all the same, with romaine, tomatoes, a little chunk of feta on the side and a creamy vinaigrette dressing.

Our waiter recommended the snapper that evening, and we were glad he had. It was grilled whole, with herbs and butter; and the fresh, succulent white flesh came away easily from the bones. It was a standout.

The kitchen's signature dish is a rack of lamb en croute. Our waiter said we could order it plain, and he preferred it that way, but it's hard to talk me out of puff pastry. The problem is that the pastry doesn't bake long enough to get quite as flaky and crisp as it should unless you order your lamb well-done.

But the chops, cooked pink as ordered, were tender and flavorful from being marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. And even if the pastry was a little soft, the combination was delicious.

Less successful was chicken and shrimp saffron, a combination of white meat and large shrimp in a sweet, thick, pinkish sauce of tomatoes and cream. I'm not sure what happened to the saffron. The dish was served over rice, which means you won't get with it the good oven-baked potatoes that come with the lamb and the fish, but you will get the combination of fresh broccoli, cauliflower and squash.

The Aegean has an interesting approach to desserts: Almost everything on the pastry tray looked like a different and inventive combination of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and whipped cream. (Oh, the Snickers cheesecake had peanuts and a good cream cheese filling, but chocolate mousse was still swirled on top.) For those who aren't chocolate lovers, the Greek pastry chef -- who wasn't there that day -- usually makes baklava and other ethnic goodies.

I understand why the owners didn't open another Greek restaurant in the spot where the Mediterranean used to be. If a Greek restaurant was going to survive here, the Mediterranean would have: Its food was good. It makes sense to offer something different than the other places in the area. What may not have made sense was to open a new restaurant this past winter. But spring is here now and if the Aegean can hang on until large numbers of customers are willing to venture out of their houses, perhaps it will succeed. The food is good enough to give it a chance.

Next: Fiori

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