From Donna's, something entirely different

January 04, 1996|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just when I expected to see the name Donna's emblazoned on every street corner in Baltimore, the original restaurant in Mount Vernon has been redone and renamed.

There are still black awnings announcing Donna's Coffee Bar, but now on the Charles Street side of the building a martini logo has been added for the Ruby Lounge.

Inside, owners Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch have updated a small dining room and turned it into a lounge with rich, red-stained paneling, hip furnishings and dark lighting. Picture Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction" and you'll have some idea of the type of people who will feel comfortable perched on slim seats around tiny tables here. The young. The beautiful. The nicotine-addicted. In the main dining room, things have been warmed up with yellow hues and oversized paintings.

But while the changes in decor are easy to spot, there's a lot that's familiar about the menu. A better name for the restaurant might be "Donna's with Sandwiches."

I think the move is a smart one. It's very appealing to have dinner choices that are half the price of regular entrees, especially considering the glut of overpriced restaurants in Baltimore. In typical Donna's style, the sandwiches all sound interesting -- sesame-marinated steak with Asian vegetables and flat bread, for instance, or eggplant and mozzarella with tapenade.

A quick scan of the restaurant proved the changes are welcome. Half the tables I passed had ordered the ruby burger, so we followed suit. Ours was a thick, nice-tasting burger, with a slab of grilled red onion and lots of wonderfully crisp potato wedges. If you're in an especially diner-esque mood, you can even get fries with gravy, according to a list of side dishes.

While the burger platter seemed a good deal at $6.95, the spicy shrimp and calamari pizza for a dollar more seemed absurdly small for dinner. This may be the right size for people whose behinds can fit nicely on those chairs in the lounge, but for me it's an appetizer. That said, it was delicious, with a chewy crust, nicely balanced sauce and perfectly cooked seafood.

We were intrigued by the Latin-inspired items on the menu. Like the new lounge, they reminded us of trendy restaurants in Miami's South Beach. Where else would you find oven-roasted stuffed calamari with Cuban garlic sauce? Our table had mixed reviews for an appetizer of green plantains, fried crisp enough to use as dippers in a garlicky salsa verde. I liked the pairing, but green plantains are an acquired taste for some.

Once again, I was struck by the highs and lows of eating at Donna's. The tequila-lime flank steak was failure on all counts. It was overcooked, imbued with an odd-flavored marinade, and served with pinto beans and undercooked rice on the side. A chipolte red pepper sauce offered no help.

The grilled duck, though, was a great dish -- both in inspiration and execution. Juicy and pink, the slices of duck were served with sauteed mushrooms and cranberry salsa to wrap up in warm tortillas. Think of them as fusion fajitas. We also liked an appetizer of moist trout fillets, lightly smoked with wasabi mayonnaise and red cabbage slaw.

There are still plenty of Italian dishes on the menu, from a saffron risotto appetizer and salad of Sicilian eggplant to pasta dishes like ravioli with marinara and spinach, and linguine with Sicilian tomato sauce. Surprisingly, Donna's popular salad of roasted vegetables is not listed.

Dessert is always worth saving room for at Donna's, whether it's traditional like zuppa inglese, a cloud of whipped cream and liquor-soaked sponge cake, or the reinvention of a classic like the hazelnut napoleon. The only way to eat this airy confection is to cut through all the layers to get a bit of pastry, some hazelnuts and a dollop of pumpkin mousse together on your fork. Then, let the flavors and textures register. Next time, I'd skip the chocolate truffle tart, which was a bit too fudge-like, and try the sorbetto.

Service was slow at times, which made us wonder if we should fault our waitress or the kitchen. But an order of long, matzo-like breadsticks kept us happily nibbling during our wait.

Ruby Lounge

800 N. Charles St.

(410)539-8051

Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. till midnight

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Prices: Sandwiches, $4.95-$7.95, entrees, $9.95-$15.95

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