Going to XS is, well, fun

New restaurant breaks rules and gets away with it, in style

Sunday Gourmet

March 07, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you ever doubted Baltimore's restaurant scene is changing, stop by XS. This trendy new hot spot serves breakfast food, sushi and fancy desserts -- but no traditional meals.

The name says it all. You just have to pronounce it excess.

Feel like a Belgian waffle with your spicy tuna roll? Done. A fat chocolate eclair with a macchiato? You got it. Customers here don't have to eat their vegetables or worry about calories unless they want to. And if they want to, the solution might be something called an XSive Salad with lettuces, vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, an XSotic dressing and just about everything else but the kitchen sink.

XS is the funky new venture of the Jay's Restaurant Group, which includes Viccino's Bistro and Jay's Deli. Located in the same block below the train station as those two, the XS space is wilder than either. It looks like a stage set as much as a restaurant. The decor is all Italian steel, pale bare wood, chrome, exposed brick, cool little lights, glass and Escher-like stairs. On the first floor is a coffee bar and a sushi bar. Up the stairs is the mezzanine, with just enough room for three tables. (That's where we ate. It's a quiet alternative to the happening bar on the floor above.) The next flight up is a dining room and bar with a plasma TV, and above them is a loft with more tables. A second plasma TV in the loft has soft leather couches in front of it.

It would all seem unbearably cutting-edge except XS can't quite pull it off. There's a friendly paper "Open. Come on in" sign in the front and a couple of other less-than-cool touches here and there. Plus the staff doesn't have enough attitude. They actually seem happy to serve you. My sense is that penniless college students will be just as comfortable here as Baltimore's Beautiful People.

The food has that kind of dichotomy as well. The breakfast food is kind of ordinary (which may be just what you want in breakfast food). For instance, the omelet -- overcooked -- comes with white-bread toast, little cubes of fried potatoes and a small cup of cut-up fruit. No surprises there. But the coffee is good and strong, and you'd never guess the maple chicken sausage patties aren't pork.

The sushi, however, is anything but ordinary. There's none of the minimalist Japanese thing going on. A maki roll like Chorishi's Fire is an extravagant creation decorated with orchids and feathery sprays of celery leaves. The crispy bits of shrimp tempura folded in with avocado and tuna offer up a startling interplay of textures and flavors, none of them pedestrian. Not to mention the drizzle of spicy pink sauce trailing over the rice.

For those who don't believe that more is more, at least as far as Japanese food is concerned, there are choices like the Sushi Deluxe plate, which relies on a selection of very fresh fish to excite the eye (although the red and black roe in green cucumber cups added a bright note).

XS has a huge menu, given that it's mostly breakfast and sushi. So you may overlook the pan-seared red snapper, for some reason listed under Noodles & Rice. A subtly sweet, citrusy mango sauce is delicate enough not to overwhelm the moist white filets, which are arranged in a bowl over stir-fried vegetables. (Rice doesn't even come on the side.)

Precede the red snapper with the soft crab appetizer, crisp little pieces to be dipped in a Japanese ponzu sauce. It's another winner that would be easy to overlook.

Not everything is Japanese or American breakfast food. There are a very few wraps and paninis, including a particularly stylish one with turkey breast, melted Swiss, honey mustard, lettuce and tomato on good grilled bread. Besides the XSive Salad, which was too much of a jumble of ingredients for me, there's a simpler one decorated with apple slices, dried cherries and walnuts that works better.

Desserts continue the everything-to-excess theme. Pastries, exuberantly displayed in the case at the front door, come from Viccino's and include a heavy, sticky-sweet, dense chocolate cake; a classic fruit tartlet; and a baklava that would have been better if it hadn't been microwaved to the blazing hot and soggy point. My preference would be one of the gelati, which come in flavors like hazelnut, passion fruit and even butter pecan.

As a restaurant critic, I'm beginning to love the blocks of North Charles Street within walking distance of the train station. A lot of offbeat, fun places to eat have opened up there -- almost without anyone noticing. XS is just the latest in a group that includes Tapas Teatro, Sofi's Crepes, Viccino's, Jay's, Zodiac, Cobber's and, a bit further down, Tampico.

XS

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1307 N. Charles St.

Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 7 a.m.- midnight; Thursday-Saturday, 7 a.m.- 2 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-midnight

Prices: breakfast, sandwiches, salads $2.95-$7.25, sushi and noodles $6.95-$30

Call: 410-468-0002

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

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