Cheers for the simple things Restaurant: McCafferty's, known for its superb beef, has introduced some flashier dishes. But elaborate preparation doesn't necessarily lead to great food.

May 31, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Talk about bucking a trend. At a time when every restaurant that opens in the Baltimore area seems to be another steakhouse, McCafferty's -- known for its superb beef -- has broadened its repertoire.

J. Ashley Sharpe, formerly at Harbor Court and Piccolo's at Fells Point, became McCafferty's executive chef earlier this year. With his arrival, the menu was expanded to include more seafood and more elaborate appetizers and entrees. Beef still has pride of place -- prime rib, a 1-pound New York strip, filet mignon. But customers can now also get daily specials like shrimp with shrimp-stuffed raviolis and sauteed triggerfish in lemon creme fraiche.

McCafferty's owners have wisely not changed anything else. The comfortable, understated dining room is decorated with sports memorabilia and caricatures. At many tables you can watch ESPN and the Orioles game running concurrently on the bar's two TVs. But those same tables are set quite elegantly, and in the background a pianist is playing soothing lounge music.

What you have is that curious combination that works so well in Baltimore: You can dine quite casually here (although the waiters are in black tie), or you can be equally comfortable dressed to the nines.

We are at McCafferty's to try the chef's innovations, so we order exclusively from the daily specials menu. From past experience I know that the beef and mashed potatoes would make us happy. I'd heard from several people that the new chef's traditional Maryland seafood dishes, such as soft shell crabs and crab cakes, are great. But how about the flashier creations?

Oddly enough, the most deeply satisfying is a modest little first course, a vegetable lasagna. Squash, sweet red peppers, onions and carrots are layered delicately with softly melting Asiago cheese and just a bit of tomato sauce. It's subtle and absolutely delicious.

Contrast that with the shrimp appetizer. Two fat shrimp are mounded with an elaborately seasoned crab stuffing. Alas, the seasoning drowns out the flavor of the crab, which doesn't have much of a presence in the stuffing anyway. And the Vidalia-onion salad next to the shrimp, while very good, is too strong a counterpoint.

Likewise the lobster salad appetizer is overly complicated. Chunks of lobster and slivered vegetables tossed with vinaigrette are so luxurious that their crisply fried herbed phyllo basket seems like overkill.

A moist, sweetly fresh fillet of halibut garnished with two shrimp is admirable, but its dark, intense sauce is a bit much for such a mild-flavored fish.

While there is no beef on this night's specials menu, the veal strip loin, two generous pieces, is sensational. Perfectly grilled, it's enhanced by the dark, winey sauce and the chewy texture of chanterelle mushrooms. Wild-rice pancakes add even more texture. (The promised crab meat, however, is almost nonexistent.)

Next to the veal, the semi-boneless half a chicken pales; but it does have plenty of juicy flavor. A sort of upscale barbecue sauce doesn't upstage the meat, and a black barley relish adds a little crunch.

Desserts disappoint us. Puff pastry layered with a little chocolate mousse, pastry cream and berries is pleasant enough (although from the description we expected it to be fabulous). But a pecan pie in a heavy crust tastes of molasses and nothing else.

Raspberry mousse with a few blackberries and strawberries is very good once it sits awhile and softens, but it comes to the table frozen solid. A chunk of mousse has been scooped out and plunked down on the plate unattractively. All the more shocking when we get the bill, and I see that we've been charged $7.25 for a scoop of icy mousse and a few berries.

McCafferty's

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1501 Sulgrave Ave.

Hours: Open for lunch weekdays, for dinner nightly.

Prices: appetizers, $6.95-$8.95; entrees, $16.95-$26.95. Major credit cards.

Call: 410-664-2200.

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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