Keeping Tabs on Bar Food

October 12, 1995|By The critics are Janice Baker (JB), Catherine Cook (CC), Mary Corey (MC), Mike and Sheila Dresser (M&SD), Lucy French (LF), Kathryn Higham (KH), Peter Jensen (PJ), Suzanne Loudermilk (SL) and Elizabeth Large (EL).

The Jean-Louis Palladin of bar food in Baltimore used to be the anonymous cook who made the oversized cheeseburger at Alonso's. But if you think today's bar food is only wings, potato skins and the like, you've got a treat coming. When you're bored with hamburgers, try the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich at the Wild Mushroom or the crab omelet at Jeannier's.

Jeannier's? you say. Isn't that a French restaurant? It is, but it has a bar with a separate menu, more casual and less expensive. And that's what we're really talking about here.

Our definition of bar-restaurants may be a little fuzzy -- that's their nature these days -- and we weren't able to include every bar that serves food in town. But you will find a good selection of old favorites and jazzy newcomers reviewed here, with dishes for almost every taste.

Stars are a rough guide to quality:

**** (the best bar food Maryland has to offer),

*** (good),

** (fair or uneven),

* (poor). Dollar signs suggest cost:

$ inexpensive, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive, $$$$ very expensive.

Alonso's, 415 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 235-3433. ** 1/2 $

Baltimoreans go to Alonso's for the challenge; the innocuous-sounding meal in a basket draws sport eaters from far and wide. But the jumbo burger that stars in the meal is perhaps the maximum quantity of beef that can be consumed without causing undue bodily harm.

After a warm-up of spicy buffalo wings with the requisite blue cheese dip and celery sticks, as well as an order of tasty, molten-centered broccoli cheese balls, my companion and I were ready for the main event. I opted for a well-executed fried crab cake sandwich with plank fries. My companion muscled his way through the flavorful jumbo burger cooked medium-well, as ordered, and had room to spare for his fries and pickles.

Dessert is limited to a strawberry-topped cheesecake, but the wide selection of foreign and domestic microbrews makes up for that.--LF

Balls, 200 W. Pratt St., (410) 659-5844. ** $

Sports is the best reason to eat at Balls. Watching a great play on the 10-foot projection screen, it hardly matters that the buffalo wings are lukewarm, the Caesar salad a bit soggy, the corned beef lean but tasteless. This is the place of choice for a lot of sports fans in Baltimore.

Fried foods turned out to be the menu's most valuable players. Jalapeno poppers, full of molten cream cheese, were batter-dipped and fried crisp, as were fat onion rings. Chicken tenders were moist under a light breading. Nothing was greasy.

There are those who judge a sports bar by its burgers. The one we tried was flavorful, though closer to rare than the medium ordered. Don't bother saving room for dessert. When we asked, our hard-working waitress deadpanned, "We don't have dessert. have beer."--KH

Bertha's, Broadway and Lancaster Street, (410) 327-5795. ** 1/2 $$

Bertha's isn't so much known for great mussels as it's known for its bumper sticker: "Eat Bertha's Mussels." The specialty of the house is served with eight different sauces, ranging from melted butter to an anchovy, tomato and garlic butter. The mussels I tried were fresh and plump, and there were plenty of them. But they were also quite gritty.

The authentic pub atmosphere of this Fells Point bar is so appealing I'm willing to overlook a little grit, but I'd be more likely next time to order Bertha's paella, or the fiery crab soup, or the saged chicken livers.

Save room for dessert: coconut-damson plum tart, seasonal mince pie, lemon chess pie and Scottish trifle. Or come here for a Scottish afternoon tea, with homemade savories, scones and dessert tarts. The recipes are from Scotland by way of the owner's mother-in-law.--EL

Bohager's, Eden and Fleet streets, (410) 563-7220.

Through this week Bohager's is still serving its crab deck menu both inside and out. Look for its new fall and winter menu soon, which will feature grilled meats and seafood, light fare and traditional bar food.--EL

Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8480. *** $

You can always go to the most expensive restaurant in town, order the cheapest entree (split at least two ways), and tell the waiter to keep the water, bread and complimentary mints coming. This is one way to experience opulence without paying a premium. Or, you could just head up to the second floor of the Brass Elephant and order anything off the light-fare menu in the bar.

It's the same stunning setting as the dining room, the same gracious service, and the same kitchen staff preparing intensely flavored pasta dishes, appetizers and more substantial entrees. Start with a scoop of crab dip or a slice of pate de compagne from the free buffet set up in the corner.

Even the most expensive entree here ($12) is a bargain -- a small New York steak napped with a sweet roasted shallot and burgundy sauce and accompanied by spinach and a potato pancake. Desserts are stunning, especially the blueberry-blackberry mint sorbet and the velvety white chocolate coconut flan.--LF

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