THE MOST unusual offering at Mandoragora is a dish of eggplant and lamb with garlic, heralded on the menu as "our signature dish."
Like the tiny new bar and restaurant itself, the dish has potential, but also some problems.
Owner Fred Khosravi said he first offered this specialty from his native Iran as an appetizer when he opened the restaurant in September, but so many people ordered it that he soon elevated it to main-course status.
At my table, however, nobody found the dish particularly appealing. The basic ingredients of eggplant, ground lamb and garlic were tasty, but the additions of fried peppermint, fried onions, walnuts and a white sauce were too much. And visually, the dish was a mess. The slices of focaccia around the edges didn't help much.
Other main-course dishes were better. The crab cake was worth the $19 price tag, though the cost seems a bit high in a restaurant where most main courses are around $10 and sandwiches are closer to $6. The cake itself was large, flavorful and loaded with sweet lump crab meat. It came with a timbale of decent basmati rice and a side of sweet, thin carrot sticks sauteed in butter.
Besides the eggplant-lamb dish, the only other Middle Eastern-inspired offering on the menu was grilled chicken with saffron rice. It was so healthy-tasting it could have passed for spa food. The unadorned chunks of seasoned chicken were tasty, if a little dry, and the rice was fine.
The menu also includes burgers, sandwiches and several vegetarian dishes. Several specials were offered, but they were written on a board outside the restaurant and not mentioned once we were seated.
A vegetarian appetizer of garlic cheese bread was a hit, with its warm, grease-free wads of feta and provolone on thin, chewy ovals of paprika-dusted French bread. An artichoke, crab and spinach dip also got us off to a good start. It was dense with sweet crab and served with a generous portion of the same bread. A soup of the day, roasted pepper, was rich with real pepper taste and flecked with charred bits of pepper skin.
The physical space of the restaurant is not ideal. The dining area consists of two very small rooms, divided by a bar area. The round tables in one room are so small that they must be pushed together to accommodate parties larger than two, and they don't have much room for the plates of food, which tend to be large.
On the night we visited, all the diners were served by a single waitress. Though she was pleasant, service was slow. Perhaps that was because, as she pointed out, the food was cooked to order.
After our entrees, we ordered the two desserts on the printed menu - creme brulee and pecan pie - only to be told they were sold out and we could have peanut-butter brownies instead. Sounded good, but they weren't available either. We accepted the raspberry cheesecake that was our only option, but found it too dense for our liking, despite its nice chocolate crust.
Desserts are not made on the premises, and Khosravi says he plans to change the offerings to cranberry cheesecake and chocolate truffle pie.
Mandoragora is named for a spice thought in ancient times to have powers that could make people fall in love or even fly. If it's truly magical, maybe it can help this restaurant find surer footing.
Where: 1703 Aliceanna St., Fells Point
Open: For dinner daily, except Monday
Prices: Appetizers $4-$6.50; entrees $6-$19
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: * * 1/2
Atmosphere: * * 1/2
Service: * * 1/2