It's feast or famine at Spike & Charlie's Restaurant and Wine Bar. Not for its customers, but for the restaurant itself.
Like other eating places in the area around the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Lyric Theatre, Spike & Charlie's has always been dependent on the concert and theater crowds. If anything, brothers Spike and Charlie Gjerde's flagship restaurant is even more dependent now than it was when it opened 13 years ago. These days the local competition is fiercer for food-savvy customers with reasonably deep pockets.
On the weeknight we had dinner there, only one other couple was eating in the main dining room. A few people were at the bar. But when there's an event going on, you probably won't be able to get a reservation at the time you want.
Appropriately for a restaurant in Baltimore's cultural-arts district, the dining room and bar have a certain stage-set quality to them, with several levels, gauzy floor-to-ceiling curtains that serve as room dividers, and theatrical lighting. The decor is minimalist and chic. For the classy European cafe look, you have your bentwood chairs. For the comfort of your backside, they're padded.
Spike & Charlie's spring menu is a happy combination of small plates and a few more expensive entrees. It's theoretically possible to get out of there for less than $20. My guess is that it doesn't often happen. For one thing, the restaurant has some almost irresistible desserts.
For another, there are some fine wines by the glass. Of course, you may have trouble finding out what they are if you have our waiter, who had to go ask. (Odd, don't you think, at a wine bar?) He was friendly and eager to please, but no one had bothered to fill him in on the new menu, so he also looked a little blank at our questions about the food.
As for the food itself, our meal was more uneven than I remember compared with past dinners that have come out of this accomplished kitchen. When it was good, it was very, very good, but some slips were puzzling. Vichyssoise wasn't served cold enough, for instance. The Charlie salad, involving lettuce, tomatoes, roast peppers, fried onions, slices of grilled skirt steak and ranch dressing, seemed a little, well, ordinary.
Any kitchen that can present an artichoke as artfully as Spike & Charlie's gets my vote of confidence. It's split in half and baked with onion and thyme; then the choke is prettily cleaned away so there's no work involved for the customer. But the dish was inexplicably missing its promised lemon aioli.
A small piece of Kobe top sirloin had plenty of flavor, and its companion piece -- a rich, tender hunk of braised oxtail -- was even better. As trendy meat pairings go, this one worked as well as any I've had recently. What didn't work was the pretty square of potato gratin with a scattering of fava beans. The potatoes were still crunchy.
The rest of our food, happily, was close to flawless. A salad of grilled squid and fennel turned out to be a perfect marriage of flavors and textures, delicately dressed with a little lemon and olive oil. Spike & Charlie's pizzas are small works of art, and the combination of asparagus (in discs, not spears) and goat cheese on a thin, crisp crust was elegantly understated. Sesame-crusted fluke curled into sushi shapes with tempura shrimp, cold rice noodles and vegetables was an intriguing contrast of flavors, textures and temperatures.
Desserts are Spike & Charlie's forte, worth a visit on their own. A quince napoleon sounds too hip to actually taste good, but the combination of puff pastry, fruit, lemon cream and ice cream is fabulous. A frozen Mexican chocolate souffle with chocolate sauce, mango and whipped cream should be the standard by which all other restaurant chocolate desserts are measured. Ginger cake with mascarpone icing, stewed pineapple and vanilla sauce has a lovely homey quality; and an apple crostada with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream shows that Spike & Charlie's can take a traditional dessert and elevate it to new heights. Ice creams are homemade.
Desserts here are so satisfying that it's hard to walk out of Spike & Charlie's after them not in a good mood. And the rest of the meal held so much promise that it made the missteps easy to forgive. After all, the brothers Gjerde have given Baltimoreans an awful lot of very fine meals over the years.
Spike & Charlie's
Food: ** 1/2
Where: 1225 Cathedral St., Baltimore
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Small plates, $5-$12.95; main courses, $21-$27.50