Sisson's taps new tastes Restaurant: At the longtime South Baltimore brew pub, a new chef adds his own touch.

July 05, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The granddaddy of Baltimore brew pubs, which was also the city's first Cajun restaurant, recently lost the chef and part-owner who put it on the map. Bill Aydlett left Sisson's because he'd had enough of the restaurant business, at least for a while. He passed on his pots and pans to a former sous chef, Bill Rothwell, who had also worked at Pierpoint and the Oregon Grille.

Pretty fancy for a scruffy little Federal Hill bar. Of course, Baltimoreans know Sisson's is more than that; but walk into the dim, noisy, crowded bar and you'd never guess there's a pleasant little dining room in back where you can get crawfish spring rolls with a mango dipping sauce or salmon fillet with a smoked salmon and horseradish crust and warm fennel potato salad.

We were there to order from Rothwell's new menu. It has much to recommend it, not the least of which is its moderate prices. While Cajun and Creole still have pride of place, there are more nonspicy choices available than before, such as the salmon fillet mentioned above. The fish, with its tangy, horseradish-sparked "crust," was fresh, moist and rich, and set off admirably by the warm potato salad.

The Cajun food, though, is still a big draw at Sisson's -- at least judging by the couple sitting at the table next to us. They had xTC ordered crawfish.

"I didn't expect to get a plate of big bugs," the woman lamented. "How do you eat them?"

The waitress said she had no idea. Luckily, I had brought my Cajun-Creole expert, a friend from Louisiana, who hopped up and showed them how to pull off the tails.

I asked my friend, of course, to order the Cajun Sampler: blackened chicken and catfish, shrimp etouffee and red beans and rice. But I caught her looking longingly at my golden-crusted soft-shell crabs. They were nestled on a bed of perfectly cooked angel-hair pasta and jewel-green broccoli florets and had a buttery sauce studded with capers.

As for the Cajun Sampler, I liked it well enough, although blackening both the chicken and the catfish gave the plate a certain sameness. The fat shrimp swam in a dark, heady sauce; and the red beans and rice were fine. (Rothwell must be a Northerner, though. The corn bread is sweet and cakelike.)

Sandwiches with a spicy slaw are also an option, even at dinner time. One of us had a chicken salad sandwich made with roast chicken tossed lightly with barbecue sauce. Other choices include a smoked crawfish cake and a couple of different po' boys.

We began our meal with popcorn crawfish, fried crusty with a zingy remoulade (mayonnaiselike, but more highly seasoned). We also had crawfish in crisp spring rolls, a spectacular first course. Less spectacular, but perfectly decent, were large shrimp fried in a coconut batter with a Creole orange sauce that tasted like melted marmalade.

When I last ate at Sisson's some five years ago, the choices were pretty much either Cajun food or dishes cooked with beer. A pork chop Marble Ale is still on the menu, but that's about it for beer as an ingredient -- except for the porter ice cream. The porter flavor is delicate -- OK, faint -- but the ice cream is good, porter flavor or no. You can have it by itself or on a brownie with hot fudge sauce (which defeats the purpose of porter-flavored ice cream, it seems to me).

Desserts are all homemade. A chocolate chip derby pie tasted like unbaked cookie dough, and the pecan pie hadn't been baked enough. But Sisson's bread pudding is, quite simply, out of this world.

Sisson's

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: 36 E. Cross St.

Hours: Open for lunch

Monday through Saturday, brunch Sunday, dinner nightly.

Prices: Appetizers: $4.50-$7.25; main courses: $11.95-$16.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-539-2093

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

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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