Just a tweak needed

Restaurant: Cafe Neon is pretty, the service is good, and the food is on the right track

Sunday Gourmet

August 15, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you can't get downyocean this August, there's always Cafe Neon. It's the bar-restaurant that opened in Canton this spring where Portobella used to be. Even though it's on the edge of a shopping center parking lot, this pretty little cafe feels like a beach eatery. It has a fine view of the marina beyond, and potted palms wave fetchingly in the breeze.

We had reserved an outdoor table, but a late-day summer thunderstorm forced us to move into the small, glassed-in dining room, which didn't have quite the same charm of the outdoor seating and was noisy besides. That also meant we had the waitress with the tongue ring. She was an excellent waitress and very nice; but when you catch those little glints of the piercing while you're trying to order, it does give you the creeps.

Cafe Neon's owner, Spyros Stavrakas, also owned Taverna Athena in Harborplace -- now closed -- and helps his wife, Georgette, run Opa! in Fells Point. But the Greek influences you might expect on Cafe Neon's menu, given the other two restaurants, are nowhere to be found.

Instead look for bar food, sandwiches and salads, and a surprisingly complete selection of American entrees.

You could start with Cafe Neon's Maryland crab soup, a traditional version with lots of vegetables and spices and some pretty lumps of snowy crab. Freshly steamed jumbo shrimp, almost too hot to peel, deliver snazzy flavor, while tender-chewy rings of calamari sport a crisply golden crust enhanced by the fiery marinara for dipping.

This is the sort of food the kitchen does best. When it gets at all creative -- take the Neon Apple Bleu Salad -- things can go awry. The ingredients are all there: Granny Smith apple slices, baby greens, walnuts, blue cheese, a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. But some random pieces of onion are an unwelcome addition.

The sauce for spaghetti al Sapore with crab is described as fresh tomatoes and garlic in a delicate wine sauce, but the dish tastes like canned spaghetti with nice lumps of crab meat and three asparagus spears laid on top.

Several pita sandwiches are offered; we order the Cafe Neon pita pocket of roasted vegetables. Unfortunately, our waitress tells us, the kitchen is out of pita. It would have to be on a kaiser roll. We move to Plan B, the soft crab sandwich, which would be quite good if it hadn't taken on the flavors of previously used frying oil.

A large pork chop is grilled to juicy perfection, but the promised apple mango chutney tastes more like sauteed apples. And a handsome rib eye steak is cooked medium well instead of medium-rare as ordered. (Crisp french fries help salvage it somewhat.)

Rockfish, the catch of the day, is broiled quite simply; but it, too, has been cooked too long. Fresh green broccoli and roast potatoes do add some pizazz to the plate.

Only with dessert do any Greek influences creep in. Cafe Neon's version of baklava, that wonderfully sticky-sweet pastry, is drizzled with chocolate. It's hard to imagine anything more decadent, but it's almost irresistible.

Otherwise, our choices are bakery layer cakes, such as the "featured" dessert for the month, an Ebony and Ivory Cake -- layers of sponge cake, chocolate mousse and strawberry filling with a rich chocolate icing. Good, but not as good as that baklava.

Cafe Neon has a surprisingly good wine list for a casual eatery, and wines by the glass are poured generously. The service is friendly and swift. The setting is wonderful when you can eat outside. Now if only the kitchen staff would tweak the food a bit, they'd really be on to something.

CAFE NEON

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 2775 Boston St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$9.95; entrees, $11.95-$19.95

Call: 410-534-1199

Rating system: Outstanding:**** (4 stars); Good:*** (3 stars); Fair or uneven: ** (2 stars); Poor: * (1 star)

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