Small plates but satisfying portions

Restaurant: Sascha's 527 offers a U.S. approach to Spanish tapas with what it calls 'Tastes Plates.'

Sunday Gourmet

June 18, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Having dinner at Sascha's 527 is more like going to a cocktail party than eating in a restaurant, which may make it the trendiest new restaurant in Baltimore.

One of the hottest trends around is the popularity of the U.S. equivalent of Spanish tapas, small plates that are a little more than an appetizer and definitely less than a main course. Cocktail party food, in other words.

Sascha's does this as well as any restaurant in the city, with everything from shrimp toast to potato pancakes and caviar. Thirteen of these "Tastes Plates" are on the menu, along with sandwiches, salads, small pizzas and eight entrees. Nothing is priced more than $15.

This is basically the same imaginative and usually successful food that Baltimoreans have been able to get for years at owner Sascha Wolhandler's carryout and catering business around the corner on Hamilton Street -- a mix of gourmet and ethnic dishes with some naughty desserts thrown in for good measure.

The night we ate at the new Sascha's, a large group of people had pushed their tables together and seemed to be having a cocktail party, with bottles of wine on a separate table. Some stayed seated during the meal, some wandered up and down the long table talking to friends.

Beyond the food, a major reason the new restaurant has become an instant hit is the place itself, ideally suited for its mostly young or at least mostly hip audience. The dining room is a wild space, painted lemon yellow, gold and maroon, with stately columns and a crystal chandelier left over from its previous incarnation as a beauty salon.

The high-ceilinged room has so much available wall space it can function as a gallery for cutting-edge art -- and does. A staircase in the middle leads down to the kitchen and separates the tables, so there seems to be a bit more space than usual in a casual eatery.

In back of the dining room is a counter (lunch is cafeteria style) and a bar, where, unfortunately, people smoke, even though it's not really a separate room.

Service at Sascha's can be somewhat amateurish, although good-natured. When I asked the waiter for bread, for instance, he was really stumped -- even though we were willing to pay extra. He explained that he wasn't sure there was anything else besides the highly seasoned, crisp breadsticks that were already on the table. That seemed unlikely to me, given the sandwiches on the menu. He agreed to check, but he never did.

And he lost our doggie bag. (He did redeem himself by confessing, "I guess the chicken got away from us.")

Too bad. The chicken was excellent, a boneless breast marinated in lime and cilantro, grilled to lightly charred juiciness and served with two sauces, your choice. This choice is a motif of the menu, with many of the dishes coming with two of the 12 accompaniments available, like pineapple peach salsa and roasted garlic mayo and Thai peanut sauce. As light meals go, though, it would be hard to beat the Tuscan Cobb salad, the mixed greens decorated with perfectly grilled tuna, colorful snippets of sun-dried tomatoes, white beans and crumbled blue cheese. Have it with Sascha's fine dill vinaigrette.

If you want a salad that's less of a meal, the intriguing goat cheese souffle turns out to be mixed greens with slim pieces of french bread and a puff of goat cheese on top.

Not everything rises to these heights. An individual pizza with spinach, artichokes and onions was good but a bit unbalanced, the cheese applied with too heavy a hand. The flour tortillas in the Acapulco High Rise, layered with cheese, guacamole, chicken and creme fraiche, turned out to be deep-fat fried -- and greasily fried at that. Bite-sized pieces of shrimp toast were also greasy, although hard to resist anyway.

Fat shrimp in a golden crust of beer batter and coconut, though, were fried food at its best; they come with a horseradish marmalade that adds plenty of zing. Here's a good example of the small plates theory of eating: elsewhere the shrimp would be an appetizer; at Sascha's they come with a serving of Cajun-spiced rice.

Whatever you do, save room for dessert. You'll be happy if you order nothing more exciting than one of Sascha's cookies. (The oatmeal raisin are as big as salad plates and have a marvelously chewy texture.) A free-form apple tart with caramel sauce has homey charm, as does a freshly baked brownie with coffee ice cream. But if you're seduced by a glamorous banana concoction -- the caramelized fruit layered with phyllo pastry and sauced with warm chocolate ganache -- you won't be sorry.


Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 527 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$9; main courses, $11-$15

Call: 410-539-8880

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

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