Where hipness and homeyness mix and mingle

Restaurant: The Ruby Lounge manages to feel like both a neighborhood bar and a chic bistro.

Sunday Gourmet

August 05, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Ruby Lounge looks like a hip downtown martini lounge. But in its heart of hearts it's a homey neighborhood restaurant.

Of course you can get a Scarlett O'Hara here. (A mixture of Southern Comfort, cranberry juice and lime juice served in a martini glass, it tastes something like Robitussin cough syrup.) And you can drink it in dimly lit, sleekly contemporary surroundings with yellow walls, big art, small tables and an open kitchen. On a warm summer's night, the doors are open, and customers spill out to the tables on the sidewalk.

FOR THE RECORD - In last week's review, an incorrect address was given for the Ruby Lounge. The correct address is 802 N. Charles St. The Sun regrets the error.

But the Ruby Lounge has developed a core of regulars who come here for the camaraderie, the brick-oven pizzas and inexpensive dinners like a dynamite meatloaf with homemade garlic mashed potatoes. True, the gravy was too pale, and the corn didn't taste as though it was straight off the cob; but for $13 it was a satisfying meal. As was the golden Southern fried chicken breast with rice and corn bread.

Don't think that all the food is down-home. You can start your fried chicken dinner with, say, a sophisticated Thai seafood soup made with coconut milk and garnished with two fat pink shrimp.

It interests me that the 21st-century neighborhood restaurant offers dishes that use global ingredients and techniques as a matter of course. It doesn't even have to be labeled fusion cuisine anymore; it's just the kind of food a lot of Americans are eating these days.

So, for instance, the Ruby Lounge has ahi tuna, served rare like good steak, encrusted with sesame and fennel seeds with a squiggle of fiery wasabi mayonnaise. It comes with an Asian vegetable stir-fry. Or you can get a fine free-form Maryland crab cake, made with generous amounts of shell-free lump crab meat, gently seasoned and roasted in the brick oven. With it comes fire-roasted white corn, still half in its husk, marinated green beans and fat slices of tomatoes that taste of summer.

As for first courses, my vote would be for the green chili wontons, crisp mouthfuls with a creamy filling and a fresh-tasting salsa to dip them in. You can order them on their own; but ours came on a sampler with fried oysters and fried calamari, both of which paled in comparison. Instead of cocktail sauce the sampler offers an appealing selection of red-pepper aioli, wasabi mayonnaise and salsa.

The Ruby Lounge would be an even better restaurant if more attention were paid to detail. I wasn't sure anyone had thought about the appearance of our plates, which were piled high with food. And the portobello mushroom stuffed with herbed goat cheese as well as a pear roasted with Gorgonzola were good enough to stand on their own; neither needed all the greenery that surrounded them.

The restaurant used to be owned by the Donna's group before two employees took it over. There's still a connection -- if only that the desserts come from the coffee-bar empire's bakery. This means the offerings are much more elaborate than if they were produced out of the Ruby Lounge's small kitchen.

All the ones we tried were indulgences: a soft, rich chocolate mousse cake, a warm bourbon pecan pie laced with chocolate and edged with softly whipped cream, an elegant Key lime pie and a fresh fruit tart with a fine pastry cream.

So stop by the Ruby Lounge for an after-theater coffee and dessert. Or visit this pleasant little place -- half chic bistro, half neighborhood eatery -- for a full meal, or a burger and fries. (It could be a portobello burger with herbed goat cheese.) Have a cosmopolitan at the bar. But whatever you do, resist the urge to order a Scarlett O'Hara.

RUBY LOUNGE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 518 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $6.50-$13; main courses, $11-$22

Call: 410-539-8051

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

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