Changing Times For A Popular Place


October 02, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Tabrizi's, 1026 S. Charles St., (410) 752-3810. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner only. D, MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Prices: appetizers, $4-$7.50; entrees, $9.95-$21.50. ***

From the day Tabrizi's opened in South Baltimore four years ago, the pretty little restaurant with the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine has been the darling of diners and critics alike.

Michael Tabrizi and co-owner Susan Daniel renovated the space that had housed the Soup Kitchen, adding an open kitchen in front. Behind the kitchen were two small dining rooms with country French charm, but this wasn't a French restaurant. The menu offered a wonderful hodgepodge of Egyptian, Israeli, French, Greek and Italian dishes. You wanted coq au vin? Tabrizi's had it. Baba ghannouj? It was on the menu, too.

People flocked there. Eventually the garden in back was enclosed to create another dining area, but my favorite place to eat was always the tiny balcony room upstairs. The mix of flowery wallpaper (hydrangeas, to be exact) in shades of peach and pale green, brightly colored contemporary prints hung on an exposed brick wall, and formal table settings somehow worked together to create a lovely, not-too-formal space.

Most of Tabrizi's customers would have been happy if nothing changed. But last January Ms. Daniel bought out Mr. Tabrizi, who had also been the chef, and brought in Christopher Cherry, a talented young man who had worked there before and eventually moved on to the cafe at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In July the two introduced a menu with an emphasis on regional ingredients prepared Mediterranean-style (a soft crab spanakopita, for instance, with spinach and feta nestling up to the soft-shell, and all of it wrapped in flaky phyllo pastry). They kept the dishes that had always been a hit with customers, like a Middle Eastern chicken and fruit concoction called gagi mish mish.

I confess that I miss some of the more emphatically Middle Eastern food. I'm addicted to the intensely sweet pastries of the region, and Tabrizi's used to have a selection of jewel-like miniature baklavas, kataifis and the like that were absolutely irresistible. The new dessert menu tends to chocolate mousses and tiramisu.

But first things first. The mezze plate for two is still on the menu. With its hummus and dolmas and other Mediterranean specialties, it's one of the best ways to start. But we were here to try the new dishes, like the Vidalia onion tart.

Although I love intensely sweet desserts, I can't say the same about intensely sweet appetizers. The tart has great potential; it just needs a little tweaking. There's a thin "pastry" of sliced potatoes, crusty at the edges, topped with caramelized Vidalia onions. It was the onions that tasted so sugary. But I loved the dish's buttery sauce made with minced apple.

A more successful starter were the plump, grit-free mussels baked with a colorful pimento topping. The beggar's purse -- phyllo pastry filled with salmon, fresh spinach and feta cheese, then napped with a lemony butter sauce -- got mixed reviews. It's a lot of intense flavors for one dish.

And that's something you have to realize about Tabrizi's. Simplicity is not a virtue here. A glass of water isn't tap water over some ice cubes. It's flavored with rose essence and poured from a special bottle. The butter that comes with your bread isn't just butter, but scented with garlic and herbs.

A crab cake was bound with seafood mousse, not mayonnaise, and flavored with cilantro and green onions, not Old Bay. And if that wasn't enough, it had two sauces: sweet red pepper and a lemon-butter. And on top, a lace of fried potatoes. I loved it; purists won't.

Tabrizi's has osso buco, but it's a slimmed-down version for the '90s. The falling-off-the-bone braised veal shank was served with a delicate red wine sauce that wasn't thickened or reduced. It was good, but I prefer the traditional, heartier version. The vegetables were wonderful: a nest of chive-scented mashed potatoes with fresh spinach and a bit of chopped fresh tomato on top.

Those interested in a vegetarian dish will enjoy the Algerian stir fry, fresh vegetables cooked with apples, dried fruit, walnuts and harissa (a fiery Tunisian sauce) -- all of it over a bed of couscous with "angel hair lace" on top. Alas, pasta doesn't fry as successfully as potatoes.

At the moment, Tabrizi's seems to me to be somewhat in a state of flux. The kitchen is still experimenting with certain dishes, so what I say about them may be changed by the time you try them. Most notably, the dessert menu is being worked on. I hope, though, that whatever changes are made, the mousse au chocolate will remain exactly as it is: two large scoops, light as a cloud, rich as sin, crowned with soft whipped cream.

Next: Kobe

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