Appealing spot goes with the grain

Fine location, tasty food and pleasant decor all draw diners to Semolina

Restaurant Review

Sunday Gourmet

May 19, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

As restaurant names go, Semolina is more appealing than, say, Bob's Crab Shack, but it doesn't give you much information. It doesn't suggest the new bistro and bar's appealing location at water's edge, or the mix-and-match decor that shouldn't work but does, or the au courant but not silly food. And it certainly doesn't connect this new Italian-influenced venture with Dorothy and John Saki's other restaurant, the upscale Louisiana in Fells Point.

Only if you know your wheats will you guess that the kitchen turns out intriguing pastas and semolina-crust pizzas in the spot where the now-defunct Yacht Club, and before that Portobello, used to be.

It's a fine location. The new owners have kept the best parts of the old space: the industrial chic metal structure, the expanse of windows, the terrace with tables outside, and an interior that can be opened up.

Placed inside the metal structure like a stage set are the trappings of a turn-of-the-last-century saloon, with dark, rich paneling, an expansive bar, tapestry-covered bar stools, beveled glass, period appointments and heavy white linens on the tables.

The ceiling is still the exposed metal framework of the original building. The combination is striking and fun, and the confluence of formal and informal is reflected in the short but soon-to-be expanded menu.

The signature pizza is a classic pizza Margherita. Its brick-oven crust, thin as tissue paper and very crisp, is a golden oval topped with white, red and green. The subtle flavor of fresh mozzarella cheese melts into slices of tomato with a vibrant accent of fresh basil leaves.

At this kind of place, where most things on the menu are well under $20, simple is usually best. But because of the restaurant's pedigree, that's not true at Semolina. You can order dishes like sea scallops in a saffron cream sauce over black fettuccini without worrying about whether the kitchen can pull them off.

Most of the menu, though, sticks closer to trattoria than haute cuisine. A tender boneless chicken breast has an elegant little wine sauce with carrots, peas and portobello mushrooms which the menu describes as a "country-style sauce." The one soup is minestrone; but with fresh-tasting vegetables and an inspired broth, it's not at all your usual minestrone.

Pastas are a good bet, from a side dish of rigatoni in a light tomato sauce to a dinner of fettuccini with cream, tomatoes, peas, delicate broccoli florets and bits of pancetta.

In spite of Semolina's location, seafood isn't the top priority, but there are a few choices: grilled salmon; large pink shrimp powerfully flavored with garlic and white wine edging a mound of well-cooked rice; and fat green-lip mussels on the half shell simmered in wine.

On occasion, the kitchen falters. A green salad with roasted red and yellow peppers was swimming in its balsamic vinaigrette. Antipasto with fat rolls of meats and cheeses piled on greens with tomato wedges and then doused with chopped hard boiled egg was a main-course salad, not an appetizer, and not as visually appealing as the rest of our food.

But these flaws were minor. Desserts were right on target. True, the kitchen played it safe with tiramisu and cannoli. But there were also a fine mousse-filled cake our waiter called black forest and a chocolate hazelnut confection that was a winner with everyone. My favorite was a poached pear dipped in chocolate, which will give you a light chocolate fix.

It's early days yet, but so far Semolina seems to have all the pieces in place.

The good news is that soon it should be getting even better. Owner John Saki and his executive chefs are in the process of developing a more elaborate menu -- but one that will still offer fine Italian food and casual restaurant prices.

Semolina

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 2775 E. Light-house Point, Canton

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Fixed price: Appetizers, $4-$8; main courses, $9.95-$17.95

Call: 410-327-9540

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

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