Asian fusion, with a personality all its own

Restaurant: At Soigne, the food has both European and Asian elements, with tasty and often hard-to-identify ingredients.

Sunday Gourmet

February 10, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Soigne is a restaurant that's betting on the future. It sits in the blue-collar neighborhood of Riverside, but looks as if it belongs somewhere trendier. Its spiritual cousin is the American Visionary Arts Museum, just a little too far away to be called nearby. If a few funky stores, galleries and eateries opened up between the two, Baltimore could have a hip new area -- the next Canton or Federal Hill.

Lynn's, the small, upscale restaurant that was here before Soigne, was also out of place. But there's one important difference: Soigne's chef and co-owner, Edward Kim, already has a following. Customers know him from Ixia, his last stop in Baltimore before he decided to open his own restaurant. Word of mouth has also helped. Although Soigne has only been open a couple of months, there's been a lot of buzz about it and people are filling the tables.

The small space on the corner of Jackson and Fort has been transformed into two rooms that are simple, clean-lined and attractive. The dominant color scheme is black and white with touches of red. White walls are hung with contemporary paintings. (One painting of big lips dominates the back wall -- quite appropriate for a restaurant.)

The front room has a long, curved bar of blond wood and marble-topped tables; there are more tables in back. The tables are handsomely set with red bamboo place mats, white cloth napkins tied with a twist of raffia, and votive candles in square glass holders. The room has Asian accents, like the Japanese-looking sconces, but they are muted.

Edward Kim's food is rich and strange, with a personality all its own. You could call it Asian fusion, but that doesn't convey its charm. I imagine most people's first reaction is, "Wow, that's weird," and then, "Wow, that's appealing." In every dish there is usually at least one ingredient -- spicy, sharp or sweet -- that's impossible to identify.

You might start with delicate bites of sea scallops paired with unctuous foie gras and caramelized mango, swimming in a faintly sweet sauce of sake and mirin. Or try a tiny tower of raw tuna and salmon perched on a bed of crisp matchstick potatoes. On top is a crunch of red roe; pooled around the base is creme fraiche sparked with wasabi and ginger. The dish is sushi with potatoes instead of rice.

Ravioli with the autumnal flavors of butternut squash, chestnuts and Swiss chard and a buttery sauce lean toward the European side of the equation. A tube of grilled calamari stuffed with crabmeat has notes of coconut, curry, citrus and garlic and seems more Asian. It's impossible to recommend one style more enthusiastically than the other.

Soigne offers winter comfort food -- what could be cozier than a casserole of tender lamb shank, scalloped potatoes and grilled eggplant in a dark, winey sauce? Or the food can take you away to sunnier spots: Marlin steak has a delicate crust of macadamia nuts, and its basmati rice is stir-fried with pineapple and coconut, with Asian vegetables adding fresh flavors. Every once in a while there's a sharp, cold crunch provided by Asian pear salsa.

Under Kim's direction, bouillabaisse becomes an exotic casserole of salmon, mussels, crab meat, calamari and cellophane noodles with a fiery cream instead of a tomato broth. Crab cakes flanked by three fried oysters are elevated to new heights with the spark of wasabi and aioli instead of tartar sauce. Ingredients in all the dishes are arranged with Zen-like care -- but no fussiness -- on plain white plates. The palette is muted except for an occasional zap of color like the fluorescent roe.

Be guided by your waiter. The young staff look a bit funky as they drift around the dining room dressed in black like mimes, but they are knowledgeable about food and wine.

Our waiter told us, for instance, that his favorite dessert is the chilled lemongrass parfait with pineapple-mint salsa, but no one orders it. He was right: Its fresh, cold flavors eclipsed even a freshly baked flourless chocolate cake with cardamom ice cream and gingerbread rounds filled with cinnamon whipped cream. (You can also get the cardamom ice cream on its own or mango sorbet with raspberries.)

The service in general is informal but thoughtful. Although Kim's food is complicated, it appeared in a reasonable amount of time. Glasses were kept filled, and dishes cleared unobtrusively. The only real glitch was that two of our desserts came out well in advance of the other two; but our waiter was so graciously apologetic that even that was quickly forgotten.

SOIGNE

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 554 E. Fort Ave.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$13; main courses, $13-$21

Call: 410-659-9898

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

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