Canton's new Geckos has serious starters

October 01, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With baby cacti on the tables and a giant papier mache lizard guarding the bar, Geckos has brought the desert to Canton.

In April, chefs Jim Smith and Tim Walter partnered with Nick Marrero and John Turner to open this Southwestern eatery in the building Fins used to occupy. They didn't even have to change the paint. The Caribbean pastels work as Santa Fe colors now that the palm tree and Jimmy Buffett T-shirts are gone, but the atmosphere is Buffett-style - laid back and friendly.

The menu is laid back, too. It's moderately priced and full of casual fare like sandwiches, quesadillas and enchiladas. That doesn't mean the staff isn't serious about food, though. Culinary corners aren't cut here. The salsas are fresh, the shrimp smoked in-house, the mashed potatoes real, the giant tortilla chips homemade.

Unfortunately, those complimentary chips were some of the thickest and greasiest we've tried. Send them away and wait for a cup of roasted corn and crab soup. With the sweetness of fresh corn, and the smokiness of bacon, the soup combines lumps of crab and potatoes in a creamy base that's not too thick.

The Southwestern wings are another good starter choice. They're rubbed with spices and roasted, not fried. They're served with a creamy dip flavored with Cheddar cheese and bits of jalapeno.

We were in the mood for a shrimp appetizer, and could have tried them fried in coconut batter or steamed with spice, but the smoked shrimp quesadilla caught our attention. It's listed under "Salsa Sensations," with items like the grilled chicken and sweet potato quesadilla and the black bean torta.

The quesadilla is big enough for four to share. Bright-red tomato tortillas are filled with tender mesquite-smoked shrimp, onions, peppers and melted cheese. Cut into four huge wedges, the quesadilla is paired with a chunky mango and melon salsa, which provides just the right sweetness to offset the smokiness of the shrimp.

Our first course was so good, our waitress so friendly and, frankly, our margaritas so tall, we hardly noticed the wait for our entrees. But as the clock kept ticking, we got increasingly annoyed, especially since the restaurant wasn't busy.

When our food did arrive, it was not without some problems. We couldn't wait to set a knife to the huge fist of Black Angus sirloin, but it was swamped in a tangy house steak sauce that completely overwhelmed the taste of the meat. Grilled tequila shrimp had a disappointingly flat flavor and needed some punch - garlic, lime or hot pepper would have helped. The crab cake sandwich was impressive for the amount of unadulterated crab that it used, but the filler that held the lumps together was mushy and undercooked.

Each of these dishes was rescued by some fabulous go-alongs: horseradish mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini with the steak; corn-studded pancakes, cilantro pesto and more mango salsa with the shrimp; and the creamiest four-alarm jalapeno potato salad with the crab cake sandwich. Our entrees may have needed a little more tinkering, but there's no disputing the talent of the kitchen.

Desserts are a strong suit at Geckos, to judge from the light coconut flan accented with toasted coconut, and pecan-filled slices of rich Mexican chocolate pate. Only fans of bourbon should order the bread pudding, though. There's so much liquor in it, you'll feel like you've just tossed back a shot.

Geckos Bar & Grille

2318 Fleet St.

410-732-1961

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$11.95; entrees, $4.95-$18.95

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

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

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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