Pssst, this bar has good food

Restaurant: It may not be known for its food yet, but McFadden's, recently opened at Power Plant Live, offers a satisfying dining experience.

Sunday Gourmet

September 09, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

There are only two things you need to know about the new McFadden's in the Power Plant Live:

1) You can eat in the dining room, where there's a live rock band playing, or you can eat outside, where there's a DJ. In other words, rock 'n' roll is a given.

2) The food is surprisingly good for a bar.

Note that I said bar, not bar-restaurant. The McFadden's in New York is a bar-restaurant. Baltimore's McFadden's wants to be a bar-restaurant. But I got the feeling we were the first Baltimoreans to have dinner there since it opened six weeks ago. Only one other table ordered food the entire time we were there, and that was a plate of crudites. Everybody else was just drinking.

I kept expecting the chef to come out and plant a big kiss on my forehead because someone had finally given him the chance to cook something besides Buffalo wings for the happy-hour buffet.

OK, slight exaggeration there, but I wouldn't have been surprised to be told we were the first people over 30 to eat in the Baltimore McFadden's. The staff treated us like a rare and precious species. No one said, "What are you doing here?" And when I stepped inside the wood-paneled dining room-bar and went into sensory overload because of the seven TVs and music that made my spine vibrate, the friendly bouncer came up smiling -- I loved this guy -- and asked if I needed directions to the ladies room.

We were eating outside overlooking the Power Plant Live plaza, which on a warm summer night is the place to be. McFadden's outdoor seating is simple, just metal furniture and rock music, but as it gets dark there's a canopy of white fairy lights above.

You can order bar food from a separate pub menu -- dishes like fried calamari and potato skins. The only thing we tried from the pub menu was those skins, which turned out to be chunks of potatoes in their skins with Cheddar, bacon and sour cream.

They were fine, but I preferred what we got from the regular menu. Hot, cream-laden crab chowder was filled with lumps of crab meat and sweet corn. Huge pink shrimp were chilled and served with a zingy cocktail sauce.

We also ordered the smoked salmon over potato pancakes with creme fraiche, but the chef did some improvising. Maybe the waitress thought we wouldn't notice the lack of pancakes because the kitchen had rolled up so much smoked salmon around the creme fraiche and arranged it so decoratively with what must have been a jar of capers, several chopped red onions and a salad's worth of mesclun greens. It was great, if only we hadn't been expecting the pancakes.

The kitchen had to do some improvising with our main courses as well. An enormous crab cake filled with lump crab meat and almost perfectly seasoned sat jauntily on a soft, fresh roll. But instead of the promised jalapeno-Granny Smith applesauce and coleslaw, we got french fries and coleslaw. If the french fries hadn't been so slender and crisp and freshly fried, we might have complained.

Ahi tuna crusted with black sesame seeds was beautifully rare and fresh. Even though its tomato concasse was little more than chunks of canned tomatoes, it was a bargain at $15.50. It came with fresh spinach and rice seasoned gently with Old Bay.

I had the Southern fried steak, which no one who isn't from Kentucky or points south should order. It's impossible to explain the appeal of the thin rib eye steak marinated in buttermilk, dredged in flour and fried so it has a crisp crust like fried chicken. Then -- and this is the coup de grace for your arteries -- it's covered with sausage gravy. Fabulous.

The steak comes with two side dishes. I had the sweet potato fries, which are as good as you'll find anywhere, and fresh spinach just touched with garlic.

Because McFadden's hasn't been discovered as a place to eat yet, it is missing a few things -- like bread and butter and after-dinner coffee. It does have over-the-top desserts. You have your choice of an "Iron Skillet Cookie Smash" or a Coke float, which involves the waitress bringing a huge mug of Cherry Garcia ice cream to your table, pouring Coke from a Coke Classic bottle over it, and leaving the half-full bottle on your table.

The cookie smash is chocolate chip cookie dough cooked in a miniature iron skillet so it's just starting to bake and the chips are melting. It's covered with vanilla ice cream and brought sizzling hot to the table.

Talk about guilty pleasures. I'd like to know what kind of sybarite dreams this stuff up.


Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 10 Market Place, Power Plant Live

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$10; main courses, $10-$20.50

Call: 410-779-7101

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

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