Finding high chic, in ambience and appetizers

Restaurant: Dining and relaxing at the trendy Red Maple, you'll feel like one of the Beautiful People.

Sunday Gourmet

January 20, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Red Maple isn't a restaurant, but it's probably the most intriguing place I'll have dinner this month.

Intriguing is a funny word. It may not be what you want in an eating place. First of all, even though the food is very good, it's impossible not to talk about Red Maple's design first.

The only sign outside -- at least for the time being -- is a small stylized logo of a red maple tree on the glass front door. Inside is a striking, almost theatrical space: multilevel New York Industrial with an Asian sensibility.

The minimalist space could be cold, considering the angular lines of the furniture, the white-painted brick, the slate on the walls and the high ceilings; but two large fireplaces and a liberal use of walnut, Brazilian mahogany and teak woods warms things up. The custom-made furniture is designed to be communal. Day beds covered in gray suede surround knee-high tables near the fireplaces. Up a flight of stairs, paprika-colored banquettes, low tables and square ottomans line the wall opposite a long bar. The lighting is soft, with a few fat candles flickering here and there.

The dance floor is down another flight of stairs in back, and beyond is a small courtyard where smoking is allowed (and a red maple is struggling to survive). A DJ plays music every night.

It's the kind of place where you want to dress like one of the beautiful people just to live up to your surroundings. I even found myself ordering a kir royale (champagne and creme de cassis) -- something I haven't done in years. It didn't bother me that the tables are so low it's impossible to eat comfortably unless you sit on the floor. I just sat on the floor.

The only way you know this is a Baltimore bar and not some chic L.A. lounge is that the staff is young, personable and friendly. They just aren't bored enough.

I suppose some people come here for dinner, but I would think more stop in for cocktails and then decide to try some of the Asian-influenced tapas -- which is what Red Maple serves for food, along with a few exotic desserts. Chopsticks are de rigueur.

We ordered several of these small plates, hoping the waitress would bring them out individually. In fact we asked her to, but I don't think she understood that we wanted to nibble as we drank. Instead, after a long wait, we got two large, artistically arranged white plates, each holding three of the selections we had ordered.

Most of the tapas seemed to come in servings of three, such as three shrimp satay, which is something the kitchen might want to rethink. Two or four people are probably the norm.

That's all the criticism I have of our meal. Beautiful people should, of course, eat beautiful food. So each dish is a tiny objet d'art and only secondarily chow. Consider the Ginger-Garlic Baby Vegetables. They arrive, tiny and whole (mostly squash), spilling from a small trompe l'oeil sack made of crunchy wonton wrapper. You have to stop and admire it before you apply your chopsticks.

There are 16 different tapas offered, ranging from an appealing variation on bruschetta -- Japanese eggplant and goat cheese on small toasts -- to tender curls of New York strip and pesto with crisp slivers of sweet potato.

Flavors are at once sharp and subtle, with cilantro, mango, chili, mint and citrus turning up unexpectedly to add spark. There are other surprises. Quesadillas sport five-spice roast duck instead of chicken, and empanadas are filled with seafood and Thai spices rather than ground meat and vegetables.

The soft, sensual textures of salmon, avocado and tuna tartare contrast strikingly with a shower of crisp wonton strips. Shrimp satay on wooden skewers are fat and crunchy with a citrusy dipping sauce. Although nothing costs more than $7, it's easy to keep ordering because everything is so enticing. You can run up quite a bill.

Desserts, all $6, are mostly dainty scoops of unusual ice creams (pumpkin, five-spice) and mango sorbet with fruits and exotic sauces. A miniature fruit plate is a mosaic of mango and Asian pear slices, kiwi, starfruit and cherries. Oddly enough, no coffee or tea is available after dinner.

I know Red Maple's extreme trendiness will annoy some people, even though it appealed to me. So be warned. You won't enjoy eating here if you like large portions and bargain fare.

If you don't care what the food looks like as long as it tastes good, or if you can't wield chopsticks, you won't be happy. (I suppose a fork would be provided if you asked, but how gauche.)

If high design doesn't interest you, you might as well go somewhere else.

But there is a solution to the seating problem if you don't like bending over to eat or sitting on the floor. Just take a seat at the bar.

RED MAPLE

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ****

Where: 930 N. Charles St.

Hours: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Prices: tapas, $4.50-$7; $10 cover charge starting at 10 o'clock some evenings

Call: 410-547-0149

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

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