Reflecting the best American cooking today

Ingredients may be local, but accents are international in Corks' fine dishes

Sunday Gourmet

July 07, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you're looking for someplace patriotic to finish off the holiday weekend, Corks is about as close to an upscale All-American restaurant as you can find in Baltimore. This isn't immediately obvious. If anything, the tiny dining room behind the open kitchen has a vaguely Mediterranean feel, done in cream and khaki colors, flowing fabrics and sponge-painted walls with classical motifs.

But the wine list is filled with American wines and only American wines, selected by chef-owner Jerry Pellegrino. He particularly likes finding small artisanal vineyards to feature. Not surprisingly, the waiters are knowledgeable about the wine list and eager to share that knowledge. Saying that wine is important here is like saying the Orioles enjoy beating the Yankees -- something you might guess from the name of the restaurant.

"In a perfect world," explains Pellegrino's partner Joel Shalowitz with a laugh, "Jerry would be happy to pick a wine [for a customer] and then find a food to go with it."

That somehow suggests that the food is treated with less reverence than the wine. Not true. Pellegrino and chef de cuisine Glenn May create a seasonal menu inspired by what's fresh in the market. Their food can be sensational, a reflection of what's going on in the best American cooking these days -- imaginative dishes of regional ingredients with understated Asian and Mediterranean influences.

So, for instance, the kitchen might place a pair of sauteed frog legs on a bed of black-eyed peas with bits of pancetta, then drizzle the dish with a light lemon and herb dressing. It's a combination that has both high style and just a little down-homeness, and it makes a powerful impact.

Chef May pays his respect to summer with appetizers that add a cool shiver to the meal. A chilled seafood terrine, made with a mosaic of shrimp and scallops, has the texture of silk between the bits of shellfish. Ribbons of a red pepper sauce tinged with saffron elevate it to stardom.

Slices of pink-tinged, tea-smoked duck breast are served cold over baby greens with a cilantro-sparked sauce. Fat, still-crisp asparagus spears stand up to their salty prosciutto wrapping, then are tamed with a delicate garlic custard.

The entrees on the current menu aren't quite as season-specific as the first courses. They at least sound substantial enough to do for fall and winter, like the pork loin with parsnips.

But portions are manageable, the components are artistically arranged on beautiful plates, and the dishes are crafted with delicate sauces, so the results aren't heavy at all. A lamb ragout in this heat, for instance? Slices of blush-pink lamb tenderloin and wild mushrooms sing under their delicate wine sauce and complex spicing reminiscent of a curry -- about as far from a ragout as Mozart is from Eminem.

The fish of the day is a firm slab of wahoo, highlighted with a tomato concasse and enlivened by white beans and capers. Wilted rapini provides balance. Medallions of veal are flavorful and almost fork-tender, but it's the rest of the plate that impresses me: a dainty wedge of butter potatoes Anna, a seductive eggplant stew. Caramelized onions add a welcome touch of sweetness.

Only the pan-roasted pheasant breast is less than memorable, surprising since the waiter tells us it's a favorite of Pellegrino's. This is potentially a great dish, with a sort of fennel slaw providing textural contrast to the bed of tabbouleh. But its seasoning is so assertive that it overwhelms the sweet white flesh of the pheasant.

Corks offers a cheese plate after the main course. You can pick your own cheeses or leave it up to the waiter to find a selection that goes with the wine you've chosen.

Or you can move straight to the desserts, which back up my theory that this is a quintessentially American restaurant better than anything else on the menu.

Instead of calling one wickedly rich chocolate concoction some fancy French name, it's a "hazelnut brownie." The third layer of another decadent choice (along with chocolate pate and chocolate mousse) is peanut-butter-flavored.

Most telling of all is an elegant little fresh fruit and cake creation. It's wonderful and has movie-star looks, but I recognize pineapple upside-down cake when I taste it.


Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1026 S. Charles St.

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$9; main courses, $18-$24

Call: 410-752-3810

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

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