A little history on the menu

Restaurant: In a cozy spot down a cobblestone alley in Ellicott City is the place known as Sidestreets.

Sunday Gourmet

April 08, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When you eat in historic Ellicott City, you want a restaurant that has a patina. Not one that's "historic" in the Williamsburg sense, but a place that has some history. A place that just misses being quaint but still has youthful charm. Sidestreets manages this delicate balancing act.

Hidden just off Main street on a cobblestone alley, the building began as a mill, constructed in the mid-18th century. After incarnations as a power and light company and upholstery shop -- among other things -- it was converted into a cozy restaurant 18 years ago.

Sidestreets is larger than it looks from the outside, with a bar and several small dining rooms. Stairs lead up to a mezzanine with more tables draped in red on white tablecloths. The rooms are dark, paneled in knotty pine and lit by candles, but they are comfortable and quiet. Country antiques add to the down-home feel.

It's the kind of place where you don't expect haute cuisine, but you might reasonably expect friendly and attentive service. Friendly it was; our waitress couldn't have been nicer. But for whatever reason, she was overworked and quite amazingly scattered.

There were four of us, but she brought us three pieces of bread. My husband asked for a glass with his beer but finally got tired of waiting and poured it into his empty water glass. When my meat was so overcooked that I sent it back, a second filet never made it to our table until we were ready to order dessert. We ended up spending three hours there when less than half the tables were filled.

Sidestreets calls itself an American bistro, but the food is more interesting than the phrase suggests. The only thing close to bar cuisine on the dinner menu is a decent Maryland crab soup and a barbecued shrimp appetizer. Fat shrimp wrapped in bacon are smothered in barbecue sauce and Monterey Jack cheese. Not subtle, but good.

More typical, though, is a special of rockfish crusted in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and served over a bed of spinach, red cabbage, pine nuts and lump crab meat, with a caper and brown butter sauce.

The fish is fresh and succulent, the other flavors intriguing. It's a combination that works beautifully. But not everything does: The same kitchen combines veal scaloppine with shrimp, smoked salmon and crabmeat in a lemon beurre blanc. The smoked salmon and the lemon dominate the other tastes on the plate.

For almost every dish we tried, I have an "on the other hand."

A mixed grill illustrates the best and worst of the kitchen. Homemade sausage is satisfying and wonderfully aromatic. The boneless chicken breast arrives prettily cooked, but its pesto red pepper sauce tastes burnt. A petit filet is gray at the center when it's been ordered medium rare.

Scallops grilled with slivered portobellos have lots of character, but they swim in pools of oil.

Pastas are a staple here. You can get an appetizer of linguine Florentine; it's so good I'd recommend it as a light supper with a salad. The delicate strands of pasta are intertwined with sauteed fresh spinach and red pepper strips, salty prosciutto, lump crab and Asiago cheese.

On the other hand, the chipolte chicken is uninteresting, partly because a whole boneless chicken breast is plonked down on the pasta. And its spicy tomato, pepper and onion sauce is pretty pedestrian.

Salads feature lots of greens, big fried croutons, and sharply vinegary dressing. Sugar snap peas and mashed potatoes round out the plates.

We had been there so long, by the time we were ready for dessert I was ready to leave without it. But that would have been a mistake. Sidestreets has a fine, moist, bread pudding with a hot, creamy whiskey sauce and a chocolate chip cookie-dough pie. If you want something a little more delicate -- but not much -- try the creme brulee with a chocolate crust or a cake with light layers of chocolate, vanilla and berries.

SIDESTREETS

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 8069 Tiber Alley, Ellicott City

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$8.95; main courses, $13.95-$21.95

Call: 410-461-5577

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

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