Tapas and old favorites set tone for the year

It was a year of fine food, but no new trends arose, locally or nationally

Sunday Gourmet

December 28, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

This was a momentous year for me as the Sun's restaurant critic: I celebrated 30 years of eating out in Maryland and writing about my experiences. Alas, 2003 was not a momentous year for our restaurants -- at least as far as innovation was concerned.

That was true even at the national level, judging from Bon Appetit magazine's Restaurant Trend of the Year: tapas-style small plates.

Hey, wasn't that last year's Restaurant Trend of the Year? True, Mezze opened this summer in Fells Point, an offshoot of Kali's Court that serves Mediterranean small plates. But that was in the wake of Tapas Teatro, Red Maple and Red Tapas. When even a nice Mexican restaurant like the newly revamped Loco Hombre is calling its appetizers "tapas," you can no longer call small plates 2003's trend of the year.

As West Wing's President Bartlett would say, "What's next?"

There didn't seem to be much of a next as far as trends and bold new experiments go (which is not to say that Baltimore didn't get good new restaurants this year). The most obvious exception was Saffron in Mount Vernon, the eye-popping new Indian fusion restaurant from the owners of the Bombay Grill group. But looking over my reviews of new restaurants in the past year, I went to a couple of Japanese steakhouses and a sushi bar, three Italian places, several mid- and upscale chains, a bistro or two, a Mexican restaurant and a New American restaurant. With the uncertain economy, fewer serious (read expensive) restaurants seemed to be opening, and when they did, restaurateurs were cautious.

As a result, I got a chance to go back to some old favorites like the Sunset in Glen Burnie and Ikaros in Greektown (and some duds that have nevertheless been around a long time). Maybe it's my imagination, but nostalgia seems to be the order of the day. When I'm describing the meatloaf at the new and appealing M&S Grill in the Inner Harbor as a "stunner," something is askew.

Even restaurants that reopened under new management like Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix and Four West (formerly the Polo Grill) in Homewood were careful to preserve the menu items that made their reputations. I wish I had a plate of tapas for every instance I used the phrase "a step back in time" or "frozen in time" in a review this year.

So there were no really new trends. I can live with that. More disturbing, if you have to write about restaurant food week after week as opposed to just eating it, there were very few highs and lows. (I have to admit terrible meals can be just as much fun to write about as great ones.) I gave out no four stars for food in 2003; I did less swooning over amazing dishes than I have in the past. And yet I had some fine meals.

Here, then, are some of my personal highs and lows, restaurant-wise, for 2003. Remember, they apply only to places I visited this year, so please don't write to complain, for instance, that Angelina's has the best crab cake:

* Most notable anniversary after mine: Rudy Speckamp, executive chef and co-owner of Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg, has been producing excellent food for 20 years. Continental cuisine has gotten a bad reputation lately unless the continent is Asia. Try Speckamp's breast of pheasant or lobster potpie and you'll see why that's wrong.

* Best retro reopening (runner up): Peerce's. Try the veal Oscar.

* Best retro reopening (winner): Woman's Industrial Exchange in Mount Vernon. Try the chicken salad with aspic.

* Best starter that wasn't tapas: A tossup between the fabulous lobster bisque at Hampton's in the Harbor Court and Saffron's soft, warm bread with three different fillings: quail and pumpkin, green oats and French lentils, and papaya and mango.

* Best tapas: OK, OK, I had to do it. The three bite-size pieces of beef Wellington with a flaky puff pastry and horseradish cream at the now-defunct Red Tapas.

* Best crab cake: The Italian bistro Cibo's in Owings Mills -- a free-form work of art. (I thought that would surprise you.)

* Worst chain restaurant experience: Not hooking up with my dinner companions at Bahama Breeze in Towson because the place was so busy and chaotic. (We finally found each other in time to have dessert together.)

* Best chain restaurant experience: Eating the Yucatan chicken and tortilla soup at Bahama Breeze, with a cilantro and lime-scented chicken broth, avocado and white-meat chicken, and crisp tortilla strips for crunch.

* Best food: Several places delivered three and a half star meals this year: Rudys', the Bicycle in Federal Hill, the Rooster Cafe in Columbia, and Abacrombie's near the Meyerhoff.

* Best service: Feeling the nostalgia craze a bit myself, I'm going to go with the warm-hearted, efficient waitress at Velleggia's in Little Italy.

* Best atmosphere: Saffron's interior design is spectacular, and I love the looks of the new Four West. But sitting in a wing chair in the traditional, lavishly appointed dining room of Hampton's was where I felt most comfortable and relaxed.

* Best restaurant: Like I said, we had no four-star entry this year, but the restaurant I found myself being drawn back to, and having just as fine a meal the second time, was Abacrombie's. The New American cuisine is delicious, the dining room is very handsome in a minimalist sort of way, and the staff is nice. Just don't go on the night of a performance at the Meyerhoff. And expect to pay for your pleasure.

* Greatest gain: The renovation and expansion of Bicycle with better soundproofing. Now you can enjoy chef / owner Barry Rumsey's wild and wonderful cuisine and hear yourself think.

* Greatest loss: Domenico Cricchio, owner of one of Little Italy's best restaurants, Da Mimmo, died of congestive heart failure at age 70.

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