The new Regi's honors its past

Restaurant: The old formula (good but unpretentious) gets another chance at this Federal Hill spot. Save room for dessert.

Sunday Gourmet

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

Under new owners, Regi's has gone back to what it used to be: a bar with a dining room. This is not a bad thing. After original owner Regi Elion sold the place some eight years ago, it became a self-styled "American bistro" and lost a bit of that neighborhood feeling.

True, there were some good things about the change, like a sleek new renovation. True, the phone is sometimes still answered "Regi's American Bistro." But I'm sure the locals aren't sorry to see that in its new incarnation the Federal Hill restaurant is an unpretentious spot where you can get a decent meal for under $20. This Regi's manages to deliver most of the time. What the food lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in freshness and generous portions.

I realize this sounds like a backhanded compliment, but in this kind of atmosphere you want to eat simple, satisfying, unfussy food. The dining room isn't really separated from the bar, so the bar scene and the TV are part of the action. Be prepared for some hullabaloo on a busy night.

Still, the main dining room is more than just an extension of the bar. You enter it through the bar by going up a couple of steps. The polished hardwood floors, period mantelpiece and whitewashed brick walls make the room look warm and neat. The art is bright, and the banquettes add color as well.

Executive chef Patrick Williams used to be at the stove of Claddagh's Pub in Canton. He knows how to produce pub food with a bit of flair. So, for instance, his calamari -- the featured appetizer -- is particularly tender, and has an unusually delicate and crunchy batter. It comes with a red pepper aioli and a warm, chunky marinara for dipping. A traditional crab soup tasted freshly made and had an untraditional touch: a large spoonful of crab meat added as a garnish. (It could have been served hotter, though.)

Hummus, enough for the table, was less garlicky and less oily than some. It came with pita and lots of garnishes: olives, carrot sticks, cucumbers and tomato wedges. It was the most exotic of the appetizers, which otherwise run to buffalo wings, crab dip and other bar food classics.

Williams can strut his stuff more with the entrees, particularly the dinner specials. Swordfish steak stood up well to its Cajun spices (nothing too fiery) and a flavorful corn and black bean salsa. Rice and fresh sauteed spinach complemented the fish nicely.

Rib lamb chops, each delivering a morsel of well-seasoned meat, were balanced on a comforting mound of potatoes mashed with their skins. Green beans added an explosion of color to the plate. Alas, the pieces of garlic in the delicate bourbon demi-glace hadn't been cooked enough, but they could be avoided.

A grilled eggplant napoleon was short on eggplant and heavy on a smothering blanket of cheese, but there were enough other vegetables involved, including the side of fresh spinach, to make it a pleasant enough vegetarian supper.

From the regular menu, our waitress recommended the stuffed scallops. You might wonder how you stuff a scallop. No problem. This is Maryland, where stuffing means layering crab imperial on top (as in stuffed flounder). The scallops and crab were baked and this night, at least, overseasoned.

If you're thinking of Regi's as a bar-restaurant, the desserts will come out of left field. They are extravagant, homey and delicious. The dense but creamy cheesecake and boozy bread pudding are freshly made, although not at Regi's. The kitchen spends all its dessert energies on creating a warm upside-down apple tart with puff pastry, fresh apples and a crunchy-chewy bottom, with ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce on top. A moment of silence for this spectacular creation, please.

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1002 Light St.

Hours: Every day for lunch and dinner, brunch on Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$10.25; main courses, $11-$26

Call: 410-539-7344

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

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