The new Louie's is bolder but erratic

Eats

January 27, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,Special to the Sun

We thought we'd miss browsing through the books and magazines at the entrance to Louie's Cafe, but the new owners have transformed the bookstore section of the former Louie's the Bookstore Cafe into such a great-looking lounge, we can't complain.

The lovely two-story space was glowing with warmth when we arrived on a recent blustery night. Cozy tables were scattered around the newly refurbished room, and relaxed-looking patrons were seated at them, enjoying drinks or dessert and, later, live jazz.

With its new, deep-red walls, hung with artwork from the Paper Rock Scissors Gallery, and warm light from enormous chandeliers overhead, the lounge has a restful, inviting look. We liked the old Louie's -- bright, loud and usually crowded -- but we're glad there's a new one.

FOR THE RECORD - In last Thursday's Live section, the telephone number for Louie's Cafe was incorrect. The phone number is 410-230-2998. The Sun regrets the error.
A review in Thursday's Live section should have said that the new Louie's Cafe, 518 N. Charles St., accepts Visa, Mastercard and American Express charge cards. The Sun regrets the error.

There are still books and magazines for sale, but they've been relegated to the basement, which, if challenging from a headroom perspective, makes a snug browsing room. The magazine selection is, as always, amazingly eclectic, and the book selection is small and juicy. We were assured that the space, which is pretty bare bones, is a work in progress.

For dinner, we sat on the familiar balcony overlooking the bar. Our memories of poorly served tables and moody waitstaff were quickly allayed by our server's friendly professionalism and apparently unlimited energy for going up and down the stairs. She didn't miss a single request or lose her good humor throughout the evening.

In general, we found that the menu and food have improved, though the chef has not changed much of the light fare or the many desserts that characterized the original Louie's. For quick pre-theater meals or late-night snacking, there are plenty of soups (lentil, Maryland crab, cream of crab and veggie-veggie), salads (spinach, Caesar, smoked turkey Caesar, Southwest chicken Caesar), sandwiches (veggie wraps, pesto seafood wraps, satay beef wraps, tuna powerhouse and burgers), as well as appetizers like grilled calamari and okonomi yaki. The latter are delicious Japanese buckwheat pancakes served with shredded, marinated vegetables.

The grilled calamari, served whole, were a welcome change from the often chewy, deep-fried variety but met with mixed enthusiasm at our table. They look a little bit too much like jellyfish. The spinach salad was fresh and well-dressed with crisp bacon and an understated honey mustard sauce. The highly recommended Caesar salad, on the other hand, was a tiny, lackluster affair.

The chef's menu of entrees is bolder and more serious than it has been in the past.

Unfortunately, the results were, on our visit, erratic.

Pork tenderloin was well-prepared, but sides of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and a broccoli-cauliflower mix were all cold. Ribs, with a peppery sauce (from a choice of five sauces) were tender, lean and tasty. A delicious cheeseburger, served with fresh spinach and tomato on a flavorful herbed roll, was accompanied by cold, soggy pommes frites.

Other selections include melon-glazed duck breast, mahi-mahi baked in coconut milk, venison, vegetable quesadillas and filet mignon.

Our server's recitation made the evening's desserts sound wonderful. Unfortunately, we were less than thrilled with house-made but very ordinary Chambord cheesecake, dull coconut-apricot cake and a flavorless pear tart. All were satisfactory for late-night munchies, but we can't recommend them to anyone with a serious sweet tooth.

Nonetheless, we left happy. Without losing its original charm, Louie's feels bigger and better, and it has progressed significantly from the indifferent food and service of the past. The new kitchen needs fine-tuning, but we hope it's on its way.

Louie's Cafe

518 N. Charles St.

410-230-2999

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night light fare

Credit cards: None accepted

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$7.95; entrees, $8.95-$21.95

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***1/2

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

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