Coffee bar graduates to a full-scale menu Restaurant: With a new chef on board, Ze Mean Bean Cafe now has dinner fare and a dining room quiet enough for conversation.

November 01, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

As the world fills up with more and more coffee bars, Yvonne Dornic, owner of Ze Mean Bean Cafe, has made a wise decision. She's changing her funky little Fells Point coffee bar into a full-scale restaurant.

Oh, you can still linger over a latte here while you listen to live music nightly. And the Slavic specialties (pierogi, goulash, Polish cabbage and mushroom soup) are still on the menu. What's new is chef Kevin Miller, who's added a full dinner menu to the mix with dishes like roasted duck breast and Moroccan lamb stew.

Also new is a charming second-story dining room. If you want to have a conversation while you eat, it puts you just far enough away from the live music to be able to enjoy it and still talk.

But the food is the story here. Miller, who came from the Blue Moon in Rehoboth, has quite a repertoire. It isn't dainty fare - the large portions lack a certain elegance - but who's complaining? It's imaginative and good.

Not everything works. The mussels were gritty in the seafood pasta, an otherwise pleasing combination of monkfish, scallops and shrimp with linguine. And saffron dominated the dish's tomato saffron broth.

Borscht was over-salted and not quite hot enough when it arrived at the table.

I would dice the grilled-apple and brandy-infused duck sausage, not slice it in half and place it in all its greasy glory on top of the mesclun salad (which also boasts warm new potatoes, caramelized red onions, and sliced pear). The flavors were fine, but it was a hefty first course.

All our other dishes were very good, particularly a tender duck breast. It was roasted perfectly, so it had just the faintest flush of pink and stayed juicy, with a bit of crisp skin and almost no fat. Its orange-cranberry relish flavored with port gave it just the right edge of sweetness. The duck slices were draped on an intriguing potato torta layered with butternut squash puree, and just-tender broccoli florets added bright color to the plate.

Moroccan lamb stew, a special that night, was served over herb-infused couscous. Tomatoes, eggplant, apricots, red wine, bTC mint leaves and a touch of garlic had been cooked down to an aromatic sauce for the tender chunks of meat.

Equally good was the smoked pork chop, although it didn't taste particularly smoked. Oddly enough, its sweet-potato hash had plenty of smoky flavor. A spicy pear chutney and fresh spinach sauteed with garlic rounded out a handsome plate with bold flavors.

Speaking of bold flavors, chef Miller's signature dessert is pumpkin bread pudding with homemade cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce. It's excellent, and there's enough for four. We also tried the mincemeat-like apple pie and a light but very sweet banana-pineapple cake, both made on the premises. Neither rises to the heights of the bread pudding, but they are pleasant enough.

ZE MEAN BEAN CAFE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1739-41 Fleet St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$8.95; main courses, $6.95-$19.95; Master Card, Visa

Call: 410-675-5999

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

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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