Henry's is tasty stop for casual dinner


Only a month old, Mark Hofmann's latest venture does brisk business

May 05, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

For someone with a resume that includes work in the kitchens of the now-closed Pavilion at the Walters, the Polo Grill, Linwood's Due and Rothwells, chef Mark Hofmann's newest venture is something of a surprise.

People who have followed Hofmann's career know that his specialty is casual food with a decidedly upscale accent. But when he opened his own restaurant, he settled on a neighborly place where he probably sells more hamburgers than grilled tuna nicoise.

Henry's Bistro (named after Hofmann's son) sits next to a Safeway in a Jacksonville shopping center. It's the kind of place you go with the kids when you don't feel like cooking, and there's a bar in back that was doing a brisk business on a Thursday evening. If the night we were there is any indication, the place is going to be a gold mine.

You won't find much atmosphere at Henry's. The two dining rooms are pleasant enough, with a featureless contemporary look in neutral colors. You can sit at a booth or one of the wood tables. The exterior has been handsomely landscaped; but when all is said and done, the place is still perched on a parking lot next to a supermarket.

Nobody is complaining, not when you can get a dinner with potatoes and fresh vegetables for under $20. After being open a month, the kitchen is still feeling its way a bit, and not everything is a winner; but we had some very good food. We also had some so-so food.

I'd put Henry's chopped salad in the so-so category. It was supposedly made with mixed lettuces, but they were too much like iceberg to make much difference. The "garden vegetables" were early spring tomatoes, slices of cucumber, carrots and onions. The house vinaigrette had no more flavor than mayonnaise. Only the feta cheese gave the salad a bit of a spark.

Chilean sea bass, which our waitress recommended, looked unnervingly like a pile of applesauce. (It turned out to be covered in a Parmesan crust.) As indifferent as the fish looked, it had even less taste.

What salvaged the dish, and what sets Henry's a cut above most neighborhood restaurants, was the fresh vegetables: plum tomatoes baked with a bread crumb topping, delicate asparagus, sliced carrots (not those prepackaged "baby" carrots). Henry's full-flavored mashed potatoes and little new potatoes are also almost worth the price of admission.

But then there was a dish that's just right for an early spring night: fat pink shrimp, artichoke hearts, fresh basil and roasted red peppers tossed with penne, with a whisper of a lemon-cream sauce. Just as notable was the "drunken clams" appetizer, with plenty of good bread to soak up the racy white wine sauce.

Plump oysters thrive in the traditional clams casino treatment of garlic butter, a curl of bacon and a dusting of Parmesan. Fresh basil makes a showing again on bruschetta topped with diced tomato, feta and chopped garlic.

Chicken appears in several guises on the menu, blackened or roasted or part of a chicken and portobello melt. For a special, the kitchen layered blackened chicken with mozzarella and tomatoes, then paired it with a bold slaw jazzed up with artichoke hearts and olives.

Henry's has the classic bistro steak, but it would be hard to beat the barbecued short ribs if you're in the mood for beef. The meat falls apart at the touch of the fork, but its robust flavor stands up staunchly to the sweet-hot sauce. A cloud of those excellent mashed potatoes marries perfectly with it.

Whatever its flaws, you have to give Henry's extra points for a carefully chosen wine list of modestly priced selections and its fine bread and sweet butter.

Desserts, too, could be a drawing card, although they need a little tweaking. The selection is perfect -- perhaps a little heavy on chocolate, if such a thing is possible. There's Hofmann's signature chocolate chunk creme brulee, a dish he brought from Due. There's a warm apple turnover in a flaky pastry with cinnamon ice cream, a chocolate bread pudding, and profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce, and a classic strawberry shortcake -- that is, one made with a biscuit instead of sponge cake.

The potential of these desserts is enormous -- they are some of my favorites -- but the apple turnover was missing its caramel sauce, the bread pudding was smothered in too much raspberry sauce, and both the cream puff casing of the profiteroles and the shortcake biscuit were a bit dry.

Henry's is clearly a restaurant still feeling its way. But on the strength of those mashed potatoes alone, I'm willing to bet the kitchen will find the right balance of crowd-pleasers and stylish comfort food every bistro should have.

Henry's Bistro

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 3493 Sweet Air Road, Jacksonville

Hours: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$7; main courses, $8-$18

Call: 410-667-6600

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

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