Mediterranean food is hotter than hot right now, and I'm not talking spicy. Enter Scirocco Mediterranean Grill, the handsome new eating spot just off Route 97 in Annapolis. The decor is faux Mediterranean in its highest form, with marble busts and distressed finishes, fat pillar candles dripping wax down wrought-iron candlesticks, Greco-Roman columns, a
copper-topped bar and lots of whitewashed walls and terra cotta.
This is the place to go for grilled seafood, meats and vegetables; great breads baked on the premises; gourmet pizzas from a wood-burning oven. There's a representative dish from each of several Mediterranean cuisines, such as Tunisian fish soup, a Middle Eastern combination plate, paella from Spain and moussaka from Greece. My recommendations? The whole red snapper (fresher than fresh) sauced with olive oil and herbs and a fine mixed grill consisting of a filet mignon, a lamb chop and a pork chop. The paella is excellent, too.
Sisson's, 36 E. Cross St., (410) 539-2093. $$
The Cajun kick has passed in Baltimore -- gone, thank goodness, are the days when restaurants blackened everything from oysters to arugula -- but Sisson's keeps the Cajun spirit alive with its good food and "let the good times roll" atmosphere.
Sisson's is a fine restaurant and an excellent value. That it is also Baltimore's original brew-pub is a bonus. Beer plays a leading role here, both in the glass and in the cooking.
The generous pork loin chop cooked in Anchor Steam beer was tasty with its rosemary and brown sauce, but was a bit too pink for our preferences. The jambalaya was spicy and impeccably prepared. Roasted corn and clam chowder had a tangy hint of cayenne that set off the creamy soup, which had bountiful chunks of non-gritty clam. A rich, warm pecan pie and praline pecan bread pudding were enough to call up images of "Blue Bayou." We're going back someday, come what may.
Michael and Sheila Dresser
Spike & Charlie's
Spike & Charlie's, 1225 Cathedral St., (410) 752-8144. $$$
This modern art deco restaurant has one of the most creative kitchens in town. The menu mixes the expected with the unexpected and the trendy with the familiar. Good old steak gets a festive companion with garlic mashed potatoes. A game hen goes nouveau with polenta and a red pepper tomato stew.
On a cool night, we couldn't resist the oyster stew flavored with applewood smoked bacon and an appetizer that paired clams with homemade pork and chicken sausage. The sesame-crusted rockfish was wonderfully Oriental with a rice noodle cake and two spicy shrimp. And the grilled duck slices were flavorful on a bed of buckwheat fettuccine dotted with currants -- and roasted garlic cloves (too much garlic for me, though).
Desserts are a must. A warmed apple cake with cinnamon ice cream was a hit. But I would go back just to savor the delectable banana tart.
Stone Mill Bakery and Ecole
Stone Mill Bakery and Ecole, Greenspring Station, 10751 Falls Rd., Lutherville, (410) 821-1358. $$$
Next time somebody tells you how staid Baltimore cuisine is, take him or her to Ecole, a tiny, imaginative bistro run by Stone Mill's baker-par-excellence Billy Himmelrich. His six-course, fixed-price meal is an adventure -- from the first sip of lemon-scented water to the last spoonful of flawless rice pudding.
What's served in between is creative, thoughtfully presented food in sometimes petite portions. Wild mushroom profiteroles, foie gras terrine and grilled quail with apple stuffing show the culinary fireworks that the kitchen is capable of providing. But dinner is more in the details here, with elegant Limoges china, exceptional breads and fragrant nutmeg mashed potatoes setting the meal apart.
Expectations run high when you taste a baker's desserts. While the crispy apple tart was impossible to cut (even with a knife!), the rice pudding was creamy perfection. A caveat: Dinner isn't served every day of the week so be sure to plan ahead.
Szechuan Best, 8625 Liberty Rd., Randallstown, (410) 521-0020. $$
There's a lot in a name. This eatery, on an unlikely strip of Liberty Road, truly offers some of the best Chinese dishes in the area.
Having dined here many times, oohing over all our Western-accented favorites, we recently had the good fortune to go with a Chinese-American. The special Chinese-language menu opened doors to gastronomic bliss only hinted at by Szechuan Best's exceptional cashew chicken and spicy orange beef.