And now, sip wine with your cheese

Combalou adds liquor license and expands its menu

Sunday Gourmet

April 27, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Combalou Fromagerie & Cafe brings something to the city we didn't have before, and for that we should cut it a little slack. A couple of years ago, it opened as a gourmet lunch spot and cheese shop. Now, under a new owner, it's gotten a liquor license, has expanded its field of vision and is open for dinner. But the theme is still artisanal cheeses in every form.

This has always been the place to come when you want a triple-cream brie to take home for a dinner party or if your idea of a perfect lunch is a cheese and fruit plate. But now you can have your cheese with a glass of wine or as part of a moderately priced dinner.

With the new menu, though, not every dish involves cheese and that's too bad -- although I can understand the change. Why limit your customer base? Still, when you walk in, it's obvious what this place is all about. For one thing, it has a fromagier instead of a sommelier. (She'll help you make your selection of cheeses.)

The wine list is arranged by the kinds of cheese the wines go with. There are a refrigerated case filled with an impressive array of cheeses and a "cave" for aging cheeses in back. The walls are cheddar-yellow and the banquettes are covered in black-and-white cow print. The decor is shabby chic, how deliberately I don't know, and not to everyone's taste; but you can tell from its looks some interesting food is going to be produced here.

Combalou now has table service, a vast improvement over the old arrangement where you ordered at the cash register and maybe there would be a table ready by the time the waitress brought you your meal but maybe not.

If you begin your meal with a cheese plate, give the fromagier some direction. We didn't and weren't completely happy with the five cheeses she picked for us -- there was some repetition, and one, a Stilton with blueberries, would have been better for dessert. The plate came with cut-up figs, tiny delicious olives and grapes that had seen better days. (The restaurant will improve when the kitchen pays more attention to details like discarding the bad grapes on the stem.)

If you don't want to share a cheese plate, you can start with an appealing white bean spread -- something like, but much milder than, hummus. I wouldn't garnish it with vegetables and apple slices for dipping, but I guess this gives the customer choices. A little mound of lentils tossed with red pepper vinaigrette and decorated with chunks of feta is also a good way to go here.

You aren't going to do better than Combalou's macaroni and cheese for a main course, silly as it sounds at a place with so much funky style. The cheeses it's made with produce a thick, creamy, golden sauce for the pasta with lots of crunchy edges. Pasta shows up again -- although not so successfully -- in the cafe's signature dish, involving fettucine and a tomato-and-cream-based sauce with large shrimp and slices of chicken.

The cafe works hard to stay affordable, so your best bets are dishes that don't involve expensive ingredients (other than cheese, of course). "Tournedos Black and Bleu" sounded great, but the reality was two paper-thin pieces of beef propped up on a great mound of mashed potatoes. Their treatment almost saved them: The blackening spices gave them a zap of flavor, and the creamy blue cheese sauce added needed luxury.

If you feel like fish, it better be salmon. Combalou fixes it three different ways, none involving cheese. The pan-seared fillet is as good a way to go as any. The fish is fresh and the lemon butter sauce, while it may not excite, doesn't detract either.

We had a Combalou salad as well, with mixed greens, walnuts and slices of Granny Smith apples. The promised Stilton would have gone with it better than the chevre we got, but maybe the kitchen figured that because we had been given two different Stiltons on our cheese plate, we had reached our limit.

If you must have something sugary for dessert, I can recommend the creamy raspberry cheesecake or the warm chocolate chip cake with ice cream. The other choices didn't taste all that fresh and weren't defrosted very successfully. But dinner at Combalou really should end with fruit and cheese, just because there are so many fine choices.

Combalou

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 818 N. Calvert St., Mount Vernon

Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday-Friday 11 to 10, Saturday 10-10, Sunday 11-8

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$8; main courses, $10-$17

Call: 410-528-1117

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

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