Getting your fill of Balkan cuisine

February 13, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "Lisa" in the eponymously named cafe is Lisa Mostovoy, a supermodel look-alike who hails from the Ukraine. Together with her family and the Podzin family, she has set out to introduce Baltimoreans to the robust and flavorful foods of the Black Sea region. With warmth and good humor, the two families are serving Balkan and Ukrainian specialties at outlandishly low prices.

Lisa's opened almost three months ago at the site of the defunct 2110, Benny Gordon's tiny outpost of French fare. Tough to find, it's tucked downstairs in a nondescript rowhouse fronted by a demure awning and a forbidding wooden front door. The Mostovoys and the Podzins have cozied up the interior with a few Eastern European decorations, but their real energy has gone into the food.

The left-hand side of the menu features inexpensive deli staples -- corned beef sandwiches, BLTs, kosher hot dogs. They are fine, served on hearty rye and pumpernickel. But to visit Lisa's without trying the Balkan cuisine is like going to Disney World without riding Space Mountain.

A warning: All of the Black Sea specialties are so filling that they may induce afternoon napping if consumed at midday. It's a shame the restaurant isn't open during prime time, because this urge to nap can be troublesome in the lecture hall or at the 3 o'clock board meeting.

First, there are the piroshki (available as specials). These are smaller versions of the Russian turnovers called pierogi. Lisa's renditions are more like little ravioli squares and less like stuffed pastry. They are offered with a meat or potato-mushroom filling, the meat piroshki splashed with mild vinegar, the potato-mushroom version topped with sour cream. They often are eaten as entrees, but I think they work better as shared appetizers; as tasty as they are, there are just too many of them.

No less soporific were the two soup specials. Each was fabulous and quite enough for a meal by itself. Bouillabaisse started with a mild fish broth enlivened by onion, tomato and bits of pickle. A crowd of other tender vegetables huddled around a moist fillet of salmon. The dill from the pickle, and what tasted like cilantro, lent brightness to the flavors. The second offering, Lisa's borscht, was a good rendition of the king of Russian soups. An intense, meaty-tasting broth dyed a brilliant ruby from sliced beets, it was packed with vegetables: fennel, onion, celery and a bunch of other winter goodies.

Uncommon in American cuisine, tarragon featured prominently in Lisa's entrees. A pretty fillet of North Atlantic salmon was napped with a tarragon-infused bearnaise sauce and paired with buttery mashed potatoes and strips of tarragon-flecked roasted peppers. Those roasted peppers -- with the sweetness of tarragon -- appeared again in a vegetarian platter of grilled vegetables.

Our other two entrees were nothing if not hearty. Country-style bitochki, a bit like good old British Salisbury steak, brought baked ground meat patties cloaked in a mushroom gravy and served alongside more buttery mashed spuds. Buttery pan-fried potatoes accompanied a classic chicken Kiev. The fried, bread-crumb-battered breast of chicken hid a delicate sprinkling of herbs and mushrooms in its center.

Russian desserts were luscious, and as filling as the rest of the food. The not-too-sweet chocolate-covered cake and the cake Kiev, studded with dried fruit and layered with cream and meringue, virtually assure one of a midafternoon siesta. Clinch the catnap with an inexpensive glass of Corbett Canyon merlot or chardonnay.

Lisa's Coffe House

2110 N. Charles St.

(410) 727-7081

Hours: Open daily for breakfast and lunch; dinner until 6 p.m., later by reservation only

Credit cards: None

Prices: appetizers, $1.15-$3.95; entrees, $1.50-$6.95

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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