Italian meals, gravitas on the side

Restaurant: There are appealing appetizers, elegant entrees and a delectable dessert, but sometimes the menu offerings are a little too heavy for spring.

Sunday Gourmet

April 29, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When Due opened eight years ago, it had a personality all its own -- distinct from Linwood's, its parent restaurant next door. The food was casual and Italian, and the mood festive. I hadn't been back since, so I was surprised to find on a recent visit that it's taken on a sort of gravitas, offering Serious Food in a hushed, comfortable atmosphere.

Maybe it's just that in the intervening years I've eaten in so many high-energy (read noisy) places with minimalist chic decor and offbeat offerings. Somehow a place with wall-to-wall carpeting, soundproofing on the ceiling, muted colors and white linen tablecloths seems, well, a little staid. (Not that I'm complaining. We could actually hear each other.) Still, you would think that the colorful rustic mural at the entrance and the open kitchen with its wood-burning stove would set the tone for the dining room. They don't. Except for the Italian pottery plates on the walls, this could be any handsome, impersonal dining room.

The menu, too, seems more formal than I remember it. Entrees average $28, and consist of items like cedar smoked salmon and a grilled veal chop. Appetizers such as the antipasto misto that was on the original menu -- and was a small, inexpensive meal in itself -- are no longer available. Granted, Due has a seasonal menu that changes weekly. But that raises a puzzling question. Why in the middle of spring does a menu that changes weekly seem so wintry, so heavy on the meat and potatoes and light on seasonal fare?

Call the pesto that comes with the rack of lamb chops "spring herb pesto," if you will. Serve the chops with baby vegetables. But herbs and baby vegetables do not a spring dinner make. The reality was that the baby vegetables were hardly more than a garnish, and the chops (much too fatty) were swathed in a dark, intense demi-glace. They were flanked by a mound of (admittedly excellent) mashed potatoes.

More on target was a thick rockfish fillet, succulent and subtly fresh-tasting, served with a delicious little mound of risotto, fragrant with mango, and a zingy Thai crab salad made with lump crab.

There was no pattern to the kitchen's hits and misses. Glisteningly fresh scallops tossed with asparagus, goat cheese, pine nuts and orecchiette pasta should have been more appealing than it was; the dish was surprisingly heavy. On the other hand, a pizza with portobello mushrooms and foie gras was a dazzler. The delicate, irregular crust, shiny with olive oil, stood up beautifully to the rich, dominating flavors of its toppings.

Appetizers had the same inconsistency. Sliced pears, walnuts, goat cheese and bacon were added with a deft hand to a spinach salad, preserving its freshness and lightness. The baby spinach leaves were enhanced, not overwhelmed, by the other ingredients and the fruity vinaigrette. But when the kitchen wraps fat little spears of asparagus in prosciutto and grills them, then tops them with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and bathes them in balsamic vinaigrette, the simple joys of the vegetable are lost.

Maybe it's just a matter of not knowing when to stop. Fried calamari, not quite as crisp as it could have been, had not only marinara sauce for dipping, but aioli -- the garlicky mayonnaise -- drizzled over it. But we had no complaints about the over-the-top crisply fried fresh artichoke hearts bathed in brown butter. They were irresistible.

The best dessert at Due is also the best dessert at Linwood's. The two restaurants have separate kitchens, but -- lucky us -- both serve chocolate bread pudding, a seductive creation that's a signature dish of Linwood's. It's a bread pudding in name only; if you didn't know better you'd swear it was the best flourless chocolate cake you had ever eaten. Other dessert possibilities, like a vanilla cheesecake or the banana cream tart with white chocolate shavings, pale in comparison. (No pun intended.) And a cherry tart, which is baked to order, had a heavy crust and came stone cold at the center. Stick to the chocolate bread pudding.

DUE

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 25 Crossroads Drive

Hours: Dinner only, open seven nights a week

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$13.95; main courses, $17.95-$33.95

Call: 410-356-4147

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

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