A limited menu is no drawback at Thirsty Dog

March 28, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

STEVE Osmond and George Humbert are a couple of wise guys.

I mean that literally, not in the smug sense. The owners of the 3-month-old Thirsty Dog Public House in Federal Hill are smart enough to work within their boundaries.

There's not much kitchen space in the old, narrow, two-story building (formerly Lush's). So, they've limited the menu mainly to pizzas and salads - things that can be prepared easily with fresh ingredients. They don't do burgers or desserts, although Osmond says they're thinking about making a few of the latter very soon.

Of Thirsty Dog's two floors, the first level has the most atmosphere. Up front is a long, attractive wooden bar, which Osmond tends graciously. A few steps back is the dining area, a cozy, dark space dominated by a large brick fireplace. There's a small row of booths on one side, and a brick wall punctuated by a few handsome black-and-white photographs. The upstairs is empty in contrast, with one table looking adrift in the large front room.

On the chilly night we visited, we had the dining area to ourselves and settled into the deep wooden benches before the crackling fire. Osmond sat on the hearth to chat and take our order. Some upbeat tunes played in the background. All that was needed to complete the scene was a pair of footstools and a dog sleeping at our feet.

Because the menu is limited, decisions weren't agonizing. We tried all three appetizers on the menu, and nary a one was a miss. Three mammoth soft pretzels that put any New York street vendor's wares to shame came with a plastic cup of the spiciest Pommery mustard imaginable. Balls of fresh mozzarella and cherry-tomato halves were prettily arrayed on mesclun surrounding balsamic vinaigrette dip. Garlic sticks turned out to be crispy, slender slivers of Italian flatbread topped with a tangy blend of melted Asiago and mozzarella cheeses.

Those garlic sticks reappeared with the "field of greens" salad (which we selected because it reminded us of an especially wicked "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon from The Simpsons called "Field of Screams").

The salad was a simple enough blend of mesclun, sweet pine nuts, red peppers, goat cheese and pitted kalamata olives. However, the champagne Dijon vinaigrette was anything but simple; the Dijon mustard bound the oil and vinegar together well, and the sweet, fizzy sensation of champagne left our tongues tingling.

The pizza margherita had plenty of cheese and garlic, but not enough basil or tomatoes to have much zest; a sprinkling of oregano took care of that. More tasty was the "fox and the hound" pizza, which owed its goodness to crumbled bits of kicky sausage and the strong smokiness of Gouda cheese.

Because the Thirsty Dog lacks desserts, we had to make do with liquid sweets. Cocoa with peppermint schnapps warmed whatever part of us had not felt the effects of the fireplace. And Osmond's whiskey sours, made with fresh fruit juices and served in good-sized root-beer mugs, made us forget that the drinks have been out of style since the days of the Rat Pack.

Don't be underwhelmed by Thirsty Dog's short menu. What the owners do, they do well. So drop by, take a load off before the fire when the night air is chilly and order a cocktail. Maybe two.

Thirsty Dog Public House

20 E. Cross St.


Open: For dinner nightly

Credit cards: MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $4 to $5.50; entrees $4.50 to $9

Food: * * * 1/2

Service: * * * 1/2

Atmosphere: * * *

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