Grazing in the Middle East

Dinners, small dishes make fine stops on a tour of regional cuisine at Carlyle Club

Sunday Gourmet

October 20, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Kehar Singh, owner of the Ambassador Dining Room and the new Carlyle Club, is making a career of proving that Baltimoreans like eating ethnic food in upscale surroundings.

The Ambassador serves Indian food; the new restaurant, a few blocks away, specializes in Lebanese and Middle Eastern dishes. But otherwise they have much in common. Both have dining rooms that say nothing about the food's country of origin. They look quite different, but both settings are quietly comfortable and suggest fine dining. The waiters and waitresses wear black tie. Wines are chosen to complement the spicy food. If you order, say, the Domaine Trimbach gewurztraminer by the glass, the server brings the bottle to the table and pours while you watch.

The Carlyle Club opened quietly in August in the space where Preston's 500 used to be. It was a hurried opening -- the Carlyle, which is now a Quality Inn, needed a restaurant. That meant there were some glitches. The first month, for instance, no credit cards were accepted; and even on my last visit, credit card slips were being written out by hand.

Much of the decor looks the same as it did when it was Preston's 500, with soothing neutrals, white tablecloths and soft lighting creating a relaxing atmosphere. The tables next to the large windows are my favorites, especially when the weather is decent, but there isn't a bad seat in the house. Not since Tabrizi's in Federal Hill closed has Baltimore had such a civilized setting for Lebanese food.

The menu will come as a surprise to those used to the appetizer-main course-dessert format. No distinctions are made between dishes. If this were a Spanish restaurant, we'd call it tapas. That's not quite right, though. Some of the dishes are clearly meant for sharing, some aren't. They're all mixed in together, and price is usually your best guide to which is which.

A fine lamb shank roasted with potatoes and carrots in an intriguing tomato-based sauce is something you'll want to keep for yourself, particularly as it comes with a side dish of sugar snap peas, making it a complete dinner. But a little further down the menu, the plate of spinach pies or the mussels in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and Middle Eastern spices would do very well as part of a group meal.

Of the dinners, I particularly liked the lamb shank and a fresh, moist sea bass fillet sauteed in a cornmeal crust with a bit of spicy sauce. It comes with potatoes and a mix of sauteed sugar snap peas and carrots. Chicken shish kebab is also a winner, although it's served with what seems to be a blob of mayonnaise. The green lentil soup with swiss chard is nothing short of elegant, with layers of flavor. It's more delicate than it sounds.

But I also enjoyed having a bit of this and a bit of that from the various small plates most of the group ordered. These are arranged prettily on square white plates or flat white bowls, with fresh basil leaves for decoration.

There are the traditional Middle Eastern dips like hummus and baba ghannouj, but there are also tidbits like okra in olive oil, tiny lamb sausages that deliver plenty of kick and even a steamed artichoke served with tahini as a dip.

Those who want something more familiar won't be disappointed in the moussaka, a Middle Eastern version without a layer of bechamel but with a fine balance of potatoes, eggplant and lamb. It's one of the small plates, though, not the full meal you'd get in a Greek restaurant, so order it with something else.

The one disappointment was the crab pie. The menu promised lump crab meat, but no lumps were to be found in the flaky pastry. There's also one surprise on the menu: a pizza made with a fresh tomato-basil sauce. My guess is that it's there for a finicky child or the one member of your party who wants familiar food.

Dinner at the Carlyle Club starts off with freshly made pita: sometimes filled with herbs, sometimes plain but puffy and hot. With it comes a little assortment of olives and a bit of salad to pass around the table. It ends with one of two sticky-sweet desserts: baklava or kataifi, shredded phyllo dough filled with nuts. Turkish coffee is also a possibility.

If you know the area, you're probably wondering about parking. If you luck out, you might find a space on the street. But you can also have the valet park your car in the Carlyle garage. It's free with validation. Now that the parking problem is under control, the new restaurant should do just fine.

Carlyle Club

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: The Carlyle, 500 W. University Parkway, Baltimore

Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: $5.95-$14.95

Call: 410-243-5454

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

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