Red Star brightens Fells Point

Reliable bar food is the best bet in this new restaurant on Wolfe Street

Sunday Gourmet

June 13, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Let's say you're a developer gentrifying several properties in Fells Point, and you don't want a "problem bar" to open right in the middle of them. You can always do what Larry Silverstein did. When the building that had once housed the Red Star restaurant (and for a short time, the Water's Edge) came up for sale, his company, Union Box Co., bought it up.

Besides, Silverstein says, "I live in Fells Point and I work late. I had a problem finding a place to go for a light meal after work."

He doesn't have a problem now. Red Star's full menu of upscale bar food is available until 1 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Other days the kitchen closes at 11 p.m., but you can get one of the thin-crust pizzas -- possibly the best item on the menu -- until 1 a.m.

The facade is the same, but the inside has been completely renovated. Unlike many of the small, cozy eating places in Fells Point's historic rowhouses, the space soars, with high ceilings and lots of glass. The contemporary architecture is an interesting counterpoint to the building materials, most of them reclaimed. The exposed brick comes from a wall across the street, the heavy timbers are from a warehouse.

It's a good-looking space, fashionably bare but with low votive candles at the center of each table to soften it a little. (OK, I admit it. I was the one who burned a hole in the plastic menu cover. I bet I wasn't the first one.)

The story is that sailors coming into Fells Point used to follow a trail of red stars from the docks to reach the local brothel -- housed, of course, where the fancy new bar now stands. You can see why the new owners decided to keep an interesting name like Red Star instead of Water's Edge, particularly as the place isn't on the water.

At first glance, the menu has nothing but appetizers, salads, pizza and sandwiches. Actually, at second glance that's true, too. The specials provide customers who want something more with, well, more. The night we were there, the choice was a New York strip with potatoes and green beans, shark and shrimp over pasta, or sea bass. That last was steamed and arranged with fresh spinach and couscous. It was competently done, but you get the feeling the specials aren't where the kitchen's heart is.

It probably makes more sense to get one of the imaginative sandwiches or a thin, crisp-crusted pizza. We had the Margherita, made with fresh Roma tomatoes and fresh basil. But if you like less traditional pizzas, try something offbeat like a Thai chicken pizza with spicy Thai chicken and fresh ginger.

The list of sandwiches is endless, as you might expect, and includes burgers and wraps. You can even get an Atkins-friendly "naked burger," with greens, blue cheese and grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms. We liked the vegetarian flatbread sandwich on grilled pita with hummus, roasted peppers, avocados, tomatoes, spinach and sprouts. Lemon oil gave it a citrusy zing. We seriously lowered its healthfulness quotient by ordering the Red Star's skinny shoestring fries flavored with rosemary and garlic.

For a bar, the Red Star has an impressive list of salads, like the Spanish crab salad with lump crabmeat on greens with red pepper and onions and a balsamic vinaigrette. But what interested me most were the appetizers. Nary a crab dip, Buffalo wing or fried calamari among them. Instead you can have grilled calamari, tender and gently charred, with a freshly made relish of chopped tomatoes, onions, capers and olives. Tuna carpaccio is presented like the raw beef version, with chopped onions and capers, but you dip the tissue-thin slices of raw fish in a spicy soy and wasabi sauce. In spite of the name, "crazy-eyed shrimp" was no stranger than normal steamed shrimp; they had a fiery Thai sauce that gave them lots of zing.

My favorite of our appetizers, though, was really a small plate: layers of artichokes, charred tomatoes, potatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella melting on top.

When it comes to desserts, Red Star does something smart: It keeps them simple. The choices were a super mixed berry cobbler, served warm, or a fresh fruit plate, with enough whipped cream to make it seem like a treat.

The new Red Star has the usual flaws -- or pluses, depending on your age -- that you expect when you eat at a bar, the main one being that it's noisy. But if you like the action, it offers something that not every bar in the city does: food beyond hamburgers and cheese quesadillas.

Red Star

Food: *** Service: *** Atmosphere: ***

Where: 906 S. Wolfe St., Fells Point

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, brunch Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$15; salads, pizzas and sandwiches, $5-$13

Call: 410-675-0212

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