'94 Reflections: A Smorgasbord Of Activity

DINING OUT

January 01, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

A restaurant critic's year in review is a little different than most reporters'. While my colleagues are looking at broad economic trends or the deeper lessons to be learned from the November elections, I'm remembering a sensational rare breast of duck with a fried grits cake and a wine-drenched sauce or the perfect crab cake.

But I shouldn't downplay the importance of what I do. If I've learned one thing in the 20-some years I've been reviewing restaurants, it's that people care almost as passionately about eating out as they do about GATT. Maybe more.

And who's to say it shouldn't be a major story when an important chef leaves town to open up his own restaurant on the Eastern Shore? There's no doubt that was the big restaurant news in 1994, and it happened not once but twice.

Early last summer Baltimore lost two of its most celebrated chefs, Michael Rork of Hampton's and Mark Henry of the Milton Inn. It was pure coincidence that both decided to leave the stress of managing high-powered kitchens for the pleasures of the Shore life -- in Mr. Rork's case, St. Michaels, and in Mr. Henry's, Kent Island.

The two situations, though, were very different. Mr. Rork and his wife, Betsy, took on a well-established business, the Town Dock. The Rorks inherited a menu, staff and longtime local customers they wanted to keep happy. A September dinner at the Town Dock was uneven -- that was before the season ended and Mr. Rork could make the major changes he's planned -- but I'm looking forward to a return visit. The specials were superb, and my guess is that they were indicative of the new menu now in place. (Try the beautifully fresh rockfish, sauteed to a lovely gold and served with a zingy corn and tomato relish.)

In contrast, the Chester River Inn wasn't a going concern when Mr. Henry and his wife, Barbara, took it over. They renovated the dining rooms and had their own staff and menu in place before they opened. When I ate there this fall, the service and food were four-star (although there was nothing luxe about the setting; it looked like a casual Shore restaurant). This was one of the best meals I've had anywhere, relatively simple but perfectly executed. It's hard to recommend any one dish over another, but you won't go wrong with the baby lamb chops in a fragrant sherry and rosemary sauce with perfect Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and fresh green beans.

Back to Baltimore. There was no contest: The big restaurant news was Mediterranean food and specialty coffee drinks.

The Donna's group of six restaurants and coffee bars hit it big with both. The most ambitious, Donna's at the BMA, opened in September with a jazzy new setting and an even jazzier menu. Andy Thomas, formerly of Citronelle, is the chef; let's hope he won't make a name for himself and then head off for the Shore.

Donna's at the BMA is a place to see and be seen -- Jodie Foster and Winona Ryder have been spotted there -- and a place to indulge in specialties like agnelotti in walnut cream. You can get classics, such as osso buco and risotto, or nouvelle dishes, such as duck with pink grapefruit and lentils. But my personal favorite isn't even on the menu: See if you can talk the kitchen into making pasta with Donna's signature roasted vegetables.

Piccolo's at Fells Point opened late last spring in one of the best locations in the city -- at the foot of Broadway right on the water. It's a large, handsome restaurant with a great view and some excellent Tuscan-inspired food produced by Ashley Sharpe, formerly of Hampton's. Specialties are grilled dishes and seafood. My favorite: a flavorful grilled veal chop nestled on a bed of caramelized onions, wild mushrooms and fennel.

As of this writing, I haven't been to the new Scirocco Mediterranean Grill in Annapolis, but I have high hopes for it. It's a sibling of Annapolis' highly respected La Piccolo Roma and promises baked foods, grills over wood fire, seasonal produce and fish, and olive oils and natural juices rather than heavy sauces and butter.

As for coffee bars, they just kept coming last year. The latest offerings (those that opened last fall) are T. Gannon's on Water Street, the G & R Espresso Bar in Greetings & Readings in Towson, the City Cafe at Cathedral and Eager streets and, yes, another Donna's -- Donna's Express at Centre and Calvert streets. All sell food to some degree or other, but they specialize in cappuccinos and lattes and such. One popular coffeehouse, the Vanguard Cafe, closed recently; but according to the owner that was because of a dispute with the landlord, not for lack of business.

Along with all the coffeehouses and Mediterranean restaurants, we were lucky to have a number of good, moderately priced ethnic places open last year. Mughal Garden, the new Indian restaurant on Charles Street, is every bit as good as, if not better than, its competition, and prices are great. La Cantina on Preston Street is serving tasty, dirt-cheap Spanish and Mexican food.

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