A taste of the new, from offbeat to opulent

September 18, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

One of the remarkable things about Baltimore's changing restaurant scene is that it's going in so many different directions. Just when you think every new place is part of a chain (from Applebee's to Morton's), along comes a funky little place like Port O Bella or a major white-tablecloth restaurant like M. Gettier's Orchard Inn.

Does the opening of so many brew-pubs this past year mean that Baltimoreans only want pub grub when they eat out and are no longer willing to experiment? Then how do you account for the fact that we have our first Senegalese eating place ever (Teranga), a couple of new Indian restaurants (Indian Pavilion, Ambassador) and one Cuban dining spot (Little Havana)?

Without coming to any final conclusions, we decided to pay tribute to the area's new restaurants in this fall's Dining Out. We limited ourselves to places that appeared in the last year or so.

FOR THE RECORD - In the Dining Out guide of Sept. 18, an incorrect phone number was listed for Troia, the Bistro at the Walters. The correct number is 410-752-2887.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Unfortunately, some of the restaurants we've been looking forward to most this summer didn't open in time to be included, like the Oregon Grill with chef Mark Henry, Lenny Caplan's harbor restaurant and Morton's, a steakhouse. Look for them, we hope, in the March dining guide.

The critics are Janice Baker (JB), Mary Corey (MC), John Dorsey (JD), Maria Hiaasen (MH), Kathryn Higham (KH), Peter Jensen (PJ), Elizabeth Large (EL), Suzanne Loudermilk (SL) and Tess and Michael Ollove (T&MO).

Stars are a rough guide to quality: **** (the best Maryland has to offer), *** (good), ** (fair or uneven), * (poor). Dollar signs suggest cost: $ inexpensive, $ $ moderate, $ $ $ expensive, $ $ $ $ very expensive.

Besides the reviews, this guide lists area restaurants by category. Here you'll find addresses, phone numbers, credit cards accepted, specialties and dinner entree prices.

Ambassador, 3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484. **1/2 $ $

Who would have guessed that with a few subtle changes, the Ambassador's genteel, faux Old English inn look could become a sophisticated setting reminiscent of the British Raj?

The dishes are very much the same as you'll find at Baltimore's other good Indian restaurants; but the dining room is so pleasant, and the presentation so head-and-shoulders above any other place's in the area, that the food seems special. My recommendations are murgh khumari, a chicken dish with apricots and a creamy sauce; a tandoori mixed grill with shrimp, chicken and minced lamb rolls; a delicate chicken shorba soup and fresh fruit for dessert. After that you're on your own, because a dish can sometimes be oversalted or a sauce too sweet for my taste.

You may not be happy with the fact that dishes aren't served family style, as is usual in Indian restaurants around here. (Plates are prepared in the kitchen.) But you will be pleased with the setting and the extraordinarily nice staff.

Azeb's, 322 N. Charles St., 410-625-9787. ** $ $

Azeb's Ethiopian Restaurant offers an exotic dining experience, and not just because of its African cuisine. The restaurant encourages diners to eat in the traditional Ethiopian manner, meaning from a large, communal plate covered with an injera, a moist, spongy bread. The dishes you order are served on the injera. Rolls of injera are supplied in a basket, and they take the place of utensils. You use them to scoop up the food on the plate, creating on-the-spot finger sandwiches.

A chicken dish -- yedoro tibs -- was tender, cooked with braised onions, tomato, green pepper and garlic. Unfortunately, the curry in the dish barely registered. A lamb dish -- yebeg tibs -- had the opposite problem. It was quite spicy, so much so that the individual elements of the dish -- tomatoes and onions and green peppers -- were all but obscured. Both dishes came with a rather limp salad.

For dessert, we had a chocolate cake, which was on the dense side, and a bracing cup of espresso.

Backfins, 1803 West St., Annapolis, 410-268-1113. *** $ $ 1/2

On busy, commercial West Street, Backfins' quaint yellow awning and wraparound porch seem an anomaly. But what a welcoming reprieve from the surrounding hustle and bustle.

Not surprisingly given its name, the restaurant offers plenty of seafood, with a steamer bar and crab cakes billed as the "best in town." There also are meat offerings, such as burgers, as well as sandwiches and pastas.

Our appetizers -- a dozen mussels in thick marinara sauce with garlic bread, and five jumbo coconut shrimp -- were meal-sized. We persevered with lump crab cakes (two delicious mounds) and a captivating grilled chicken breast with crab-imperial topping. Giant-portion desserts included a Key lime cheesecake that was light and flavorful, and vanilla pudding with chocolate cake and Heath-Bar crunch in a parfait glass -- much more glamorous than typical puddings.

Bay Breeze, 250 S. President St., 410-625-6400. ***1/2 $ $ $

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