Beefed up for a new era

Sunday Gourmet

March 19, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Hard to imagine. Puffins, the natural foods restaurant that once seemed so chic and off-the-wall, has become mainstream simply by being around for 20 years. When it first opened, another reviewer commented with surprise and dismay that it was a nonsmoking restaurant. No meat was served, just seafood and vegetarian dishes. Ethnic influences abounded.

It doesn't sound so unusual anymore, does it?

Over the years Puffins has reinvented itself to stay in tune with the times. At one point the owners opened a Tex-Mex dining room next door, Sin Carne, which in turn became Minato -- the Sushi Bar at Puffins. Then the restaurant went back to being just Puffins again.

Another reinvention was needed. So how does a vegetarian-oriented restaurant stand out in an era when kids eat ramen noodles as happily as spaghetti and meatballs? When Americans are consuming more fish and chicken and less beef, and restaurant menus are reflecting that change?

Puffins has really gone out on a limb here. It's added -- gasp -- a hamburger to its menu. Not only that, you can get a New York strip steak. The current menu has also incorporated some of the southwestern dishes that Sin Carne offered before: quesadillas, fajitas, burritos and baked nachos.

With all the changes, one thing remains the same. Puffins' food doesn't have the lightness, subtlety and barely cooked freshness that the best vegetarian cuisines exemplify. (Well, neither does a great pot roast with mashed potatoes.) If you accept that, you can have a good meal of big, bold flavors and large portions.

You could start with a Mediterranean plate filled to overflowing with hummus, tapenade, roasted garlic, grilled vegetables and pita -- enough for two. Or try portobello mushrooms layered with tomatoes, onions and mozzarella and surrounded by a salad with balsamic vinaigrette. But the best of our first courses were fat, flavorful shrimp in a crisp coconut crust. A fiery chipotle-raspberry concoction was better than it sounded as a dipping sauce.

Someone, of course, had to try the steak, billed as a Cowboy Campfire Strip Steak. It's as fine a New York strip as you'll get anywhere; you'd never guess it was coming out of a semi-vegetarian kitchen. Slightly charred, it was pink and flavorful and full of rich beef juices. A chipotle rub added zip without overpowering the good meat. It lay draped over homemade mashed potatoes lumpy with bits of skin and cheddar cheese. Onions floating in barbecue sauce surrounded the meat and potatoes.

Ahi tuna, cooked rare like good beef, also had a spicy chili rub. It was placed on risotto southwestern-style, which meant more fire. I would have liked a bit less risotto and more of the excellent vegetables that garnished it: fresh asparagus, roasted red peppers and thin ovals of grilled carrots.

Puffins has a good selection of seafood fixed various ways, including salmon, shrimp, rockfish and grouper. There's even a crab cake -- I don't remember anything so mainstream being on the menu when I last ate there seven years ago. What has been on the menu since the place opened is a stir-fry vegetable dish with soba noodles or brown rice. These days you have your choice of go-withs: chicken, shrimp, tofu or salmon in a ginger-lime sauce. The dish overflows with flavors of sesame, ginger and soy. It doesn't have the good looks you expect of Asian food, but you can't fault the taste.

Even though Puffins still bakes its own bread, it no longer makes any desserts except for the warm chocolate chip pound cake -- which would be good on its own, but ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream don't hurt. Puffins has abandoned all attempt at "healthful" desserts -- not only are there no pastries made without sugar or white flour, but there's no fresh fruit either. The owners must know their audience. Instead the pastry tray includes selections from Sweet Indulgence, like a pleasant peach-pear concoction with a crumb crust.

Puffins' minimalist chic dining room, which once seemed so avant garde, now fits right in with other restaurants that have opened in recent years. The deep blue and white walls are hung with the work of regional artists, and you have to love the whimsy of a faux zebra head flanked by zebra-striped wall sconces. Sometimes restaurants that look like this specialize in waiters with an attitude, but not Puffins. Our attentive waitress was as pleasant as that peach-pear pastry.

PUFFINS

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1000 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, every night for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$9; main courses, $6-$18

Call: 410-486-8811

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

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