Touch of the tropics in Towson

Caribbean flair mingles with exotic flavors at Bahama Breeze

Sunday Gourmet

November 30, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Bahama Breeze has surprisingly good food for a restaurant chain and decent enough prices. The problem is getting a table. Open only a couple of months, Towson's new island-themed eatery is already a hit. By 7 p.m. on weeknights and 6 p.m. on the weekend, the wait begins to be long.

Like other popular chains, Bahama Breeze doesn't take reservations. No problem, I said to myself. The chain is proud of its same-night, call-ahead service. I'll just call before we leave home and put our name on the list.

There was just one little glitch. The hostess wouldn't take my name because there wasn't a wait yet. Twenty minutes later, when we arrived, there was a 25- to 40-minute wait, which ended up being an hour. Back to the drawing board with that one, guys.

I was grumpy because I'd already eaten there the night before. We were back because we had never hooked up with my guests. When we arrived, we took the table we were offered instead of waiting by the hostess station because there were 8,000 people in line behind us. The hostesses promised to seat our guests when they got there. They did -- in another room. Strangely enough, even though I and they kept checking back with the station, it never occurred to anyone that we might be part of the same party. That's the level of chaos you can expect. (It's also a very big restaurant with several dining rooms, and so busy I never saw our friends when I did a little scouting on my own.)

The service otherwise was pretty good, but when a restaurant is this busy, you can expect one of two things to happen, and both happened to us. If the kitchen gets backed up, there can be long waits for your food, no matter how attentive your waiter. At the same time, the whole impetus is to get you in and out quickly so the table can be freed up -- our entrees the second night arrived after we'd taken only a few bites of our appetizers.

Your best bet is to eat at Bahama Breeze at an off time, if there is such a thing. Then you can enjoy the tropical decor -- all wood, tile and wicker, with high ceilings and palm trees. And the wait staff will have the opportunity to be as efficient and personable as they've obviously been trained to be.

Rick Crossland is the executive chef of the 34-restaurant Bahama Breeze chain. His claim to fame is the invention of fried mozzarella sticks 30 years ago. I'm not sure what that has to do with Caribbean cuisine, but it did prepare me for the fact that some of this Caribbean cuisine has a lot in common with bar food. Take the impressive mountain of "island onion rings" with a coconut crust (well worth ordering), and the wings, quesadillas, pizzas and oak-fired Angus burger.

For those feeling a little more adventuresome, there are fat little turnovers filled with seasoned ground beef and vegetables, something like Indian samosas. In fact, several dishes shine with hints of Indian spicing, such as the boneless tandoori chicken strips in a mild curry, coconut and cream sauce. The dish is eclectic and flavored to the extreme -- it came with a very sweet cinnamon mashed yams, asparagus and a spicy tomato salsa -- but somehow the kitchen pulls it off.

The chicken appeared on the daily specials list along with fillet of ono, a large Hawaiian fish with a firm texture and mild taste -- although you probably won't notice its taste because it comes with a pineapple sauce and couscous with dried fruit. On another night, salmon gets the same treatment, and stands up better to it.

Shrimp, mango and avocado salsa is an appealing but flashy appetizer, served in a martini glass and garnished with pineapple leaves, strips of dried plantain and yucca and blue tortilla chips. It's a bit overdone, but the chopped-up ingredients and light, citrusy dressing have a nice freshness.

Even better is the Yucatan chicken and tortilla soup, with a cilantro and lime-scented chicken broth, soft chunks of avocado and white-meat chicken, and crisp tortilla strips for a bit of crunch.

Kebabs are popular here -- chicken, beef or a combination of the two. They are less inspired than some of the other food but do sport an intriguing, tangy-sweet tamarind syrup marinade. Pork appears on the menu in several guises, including ribs and chops. The kitchen pan-sears boneless medallions and arranges them with asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes, then edges the dish with a dark rum sauce. It's a welcome change from the sweetness of some of the other dishes.

But sweet is what Bahama Breeze does best, and that includes desserts. The key lime pie is as authentic as you'll find north of Key West, with a crumb crust and baked meringue topping instead of the more common whipped cream. There's a luscious pina colada bread pudding, with pineapple and coconut, served warm with a creamy rum sauce. The chocolate mousse with milk chocolate sauce and creme anglaise is hard to resist, but I couldn't get as excited about it as the others.

What's a Caribbean restaurant without a signature drink? In this case, a Bahamarita, a frozen margarita made of kiwi, mango and strawberry ices and not much rum. Try instead Bahama Breeze's fine mojito, with fresh mint, sugar cane, lime juice -- and rum, of course.

Towson has embraced Bahama Breeze with open arms. What's not to like about a restaurant where you can get an island rum drink for $5 and a decent dinner entree for $10, take the kids or a hot date, and be reminded that winter won't last forever?

Bahama Breeze

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: Towson Town Center

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $6.25-$9.50; main courses, $8.99-$22.99

Call: 410-821-7090

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

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