Wacky And Worth A Visit

Restaurant: Unpretentious Ethel & Ramone's looks like a tearoom but actually serves some serious food. Bring your own wine

Sunday Gourmet

April 18, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I have a soft spot in my heart for wacky little restaurants, but only if the food is good. Ethel & Ramone's in Mount Washington is the example par excellence.

Wackiness it has in abundance. What do I mean by wacky? I still remember years ago being brought creme fraiche in one of those plastic squeeze bottles that usually contain ketchup. At that point, the place was still a coffee bar/health-food cafe, but you could already tell that someone in the kitchen was a lover of good food.

Given how Ethel & Ramone's looks, you might not believe it's a decent Cal-Ital restaurant. Maybe a tearoom, not a real restaurant.

The setting is a minuscule, somewhat dingy Mount Washington rowhouse. The decor is homey shabby chic -- flowery wallpaper, lace curtains and antique photographs, all a bit faded.

A few cafe tables sit out on the front porch when the weather is nice. A few more sit just inside the front door. There is more seating upstairs, but I like the front porch or the parlor.

Ethel & Ramone's opened five years ago offering specialty coffees, a light lunch and afternoon tea, but owner Jeff Berkow quickly realized the place was never going to be more than a hobby if he didn't start serving serious food.

Sooner or later, Berkow is going to get around to applying for a beer and wine license, but as of now you have to bring your own spirits.

(You may have to bring your own wine bucket, too. The night we were there, the waitress couldn't find the restaurant's.)

Our waitress -- the only waitress -- was surprisingly good considering that it was her first night, and considering that she had only applied for the job because she had eaten lunch there and liked the roasted eggplant caprese.

I liked the eggplant caprese, too. Thin slices of eggplant were wrapped decoratively around a bit of fresh mozzarella, a small slice of tomato and a fresh basil leaf. The delicate tomato and roasted red pepper coulis added light, fresh flavor to what could have been a heavy dish in less accomplished hands. (The chef, by the way, is Steve Herman, who's been at Ethel & Ramone's for the past six months.)

Probably most people start their meal here with soup, simply because it's a specialty of the house. Usually there are five choices, sometimes as many as seven. The Thai carrot soup we tried was full-bodied with a hint of carroty sweetness, lots of fire and a touch of cream.

Soup would make a fine supper with Ethel & Ramone's superb selection of breads (French, olive and walnut) and a salad. Try the mix of greens tossed with kalamata olives, salty shavings of Asiago cheese and roasted red pepper strips, all drizzled with an intriguing, lemony dressing.

If you want something more substantial, the special of the day is a good bet. This night it was better than good. The fine, fat piece of salmon, moist and fresh, came with golden-crusted polenta, fresh spinach, frizzled leeks and two sauces: one tomato red, one a soft, basil-flavored green.

Ethel & Ramone's has other good seafood, like the plump, perfectly cleaned and cooked mussels served over angel hair pasta with a white wine, cream and herb sauce. The only mild disappointment of the evening was a boneless chicken breast that was marinated -- a little too strongly -- in lime and cooked a bit too long.

The mashed potatoes alongside were a little too strongly flavored with saffron and a little too overcooked themselves. But the fabulous coriander-green sauce that edged the plate almost made up for everything.

Desserts that evening weren't made in house, except for a good but ugly raspberry cheesecake. Still, the others won't disappoint as long as you want something decadently rich like a death by chocolate cake with lots of elaborate garnishing.

ETHEL & RAMONE'S Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1615 Sulgrave Ave.

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $5.25-$7.95; main courses, $10.95-$18.95

Call: 410-664-2971

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

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