Rising tide of new Maryland cuisine

Restaurant: The pioneering Pierpoint started the contemporary Maryland cuisine trend.

Sunday Gourmet

February 24, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Twelve years ago when Pierpoint opened in Fells Point, there was nothing like it in Baltimore. Since then we've gotten used to expensive, chic little bistros with quirky but good food; but if memory serves me, Pierpoint was the first -- at least the first to specialize in contemporary Maryland cuisine.

Chef-owner Nancy Longo, who had made a name for herself at a restaurant called Something Fishy, now had a place of her own. With a sure hand she created a spot that became one of the city's top restaurants in a matter of months.

The casual dining room behind the bar had a sort of reverse swank, with Longo working her idiosyncratic magic in a tiny exhibition kitchen in back. The high-voltage menu featured specialties like a smoked crab cake and Eastern Shore rabbit sausage.

Now when you visit Pierpoint, it feels a little as if time has stopped. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But the problem is that these days Longo's restaurant has serious competition, with all the new places like the Bicycle and Soigne.

Pierpoint is expensive -- entrees hover in the $25 range -- and people aren't as forgiving as they used to be when there were few alternatives for this kind of imaginative cuisine. When it's wonderful, you want to come back over and over again. When it's not, you get a been-there, done-that feeling about Pierpoint's food.

The dining room looks much the same as it always has: the tile floors, the gray marble-topped tables, the black lacquered chairs. To say that the walls are a sunny yellow and the banquettes aqua blue doesn't convey the soft Mediterranean feel of the color scheme. The tables are close together, and you can see the kitchen staff at work from just about every seat in the house.

Appetizers, which are as elaborate as dinners on a small scale, show the range of Longo's culinary skills -- from Asian fusion to Eastern Shore moderne. Tempura shrimp have just a suggestion of crunchiness, reinforced by an Asian slaw and crisp rice noodles. Bright flavors of curry, sesame and coconut add complexity to the dish.

A perfectly seasoned lump crab cake with smoky notes is enhanced by a plump corn pancake; this specialty is so appealing you might want to order the main course version, which comes with brussels sprouts slaw.

Oysters are prepared four ways, each one better than the last: three of them broiled with caviar, crab and lemon butter respectively, one crisply fried and served with remoulade (the Frenchman's tartar sauce). Smoked Silver Queen corn chowder -- bringing back memories of summer -- has a delicacy not usually associated with chowders.

Our main courses never quite lived up to those openings, except for a robust cioppino chock-full of local rockfish and shellfish. The deeply satisfying, tomato-enhanced broth was made for mopping up with the focaccia that came on the side.

The flaws in our dinner were minor, but at these prices one tends to be nitpicky. A handsome hunk of pork loin steak, cooked just as ordered with a sweet charred flavor, had some gristle running through it. Slices of duck breast sported a suave demi-glace and a lovely crisp skin but were a bit fatty. Rockfish, a special, was eclipsed by its garnish of cornmeal-fried crawfish tails, spicy Creole sauce and mashed sweet potatoes. It was a lot for the delicate fish to stand up to. A vegetable side wasn't clearly either the winter vegetable ragout or the steamed vegetables because they were overcooked and covered with sauce.

Desserts were wonderfully imaginative but not always perfect, as a trio of creme brulees attested. Each tiny, tender custard was sparked with a different flavor, but one, as runny as custard sauce, hadn't baked through. On a happier note, chocolate lovers will adore a dessert for two featuring the object of their lust in various guises, from chocolate pate to chocolate ice cream, including one they would never expect -- chocolate forks. You can eat the silverware; just don't lick the plate.

PIERPOINT

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1822 Aliceanna St.

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for lunch with reservations

Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$8; main courses, $18.50-$30

Call: 410-675-2080

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

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