The view trumps the food

Memorable scenery could very well be the best Victor's has to offer

Sunday Gourmet

August 01, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Victor's Cafe is proof that if you have a great deck and a great view, you don't need great food or great service.

Victor's has been in the news lately because of the Four Seasons hotel and condominium project, which has gotten preliminary approval from the city. If it goes forward, the popular waterfront restaurant will be a casualty. No one seems to know if and when that will happen, but you might as well make the most of Victor's deck and view this summer. You might not be able to next year.

Why is it a great deck? For one thing, it's wood. I'm not sure why that matters, but it does. For another, it's shaped so you feel as if you're on the deck of a ship. Why it's a great view almost goes without saying. You're right on the water, and diners are perfectly positioned to enjoy a gorgeous sunset.

The rest of the restaurant almost doesn't matter in the summer. Inside seems dim, noisy and unappealing when you could be sitting on the deck. The only downside outside is that drinks are served in plastic cups - the really flimsy ones. Why? This isn't poolside, with kids running around with bare feet.

Anyway, the food to get at Victor's is one of the pizzas, an appetizer (they're entree size) or dessert. Prices are reasonable, under $20 for entrees for the most part; but that doesn't excuse the strangeness of a dish like the popular (according to our waitress) raspberry salmon. This featured poached - one could say overpoached - salmon covered with melted Brie cheese and a dessert-sweet melba sauce. It's a combination that would work better without the salmon. The fish was served with a scoopful of mashed potatoes, a scoopful of sweet potatoes, and a colorful mix of squash and carrots. You get a lot of food for your money here.

At $23.95 the crab cakes are expensive for no lump crab meat and a lot of mayonnaise. The flavor was fine, though. Linguine with mussels in a white wine sauce would have been excellent, with al dente pasta and plump shellfish, except for a lingering unpleasant aftertaste that means garlic powder or garlic that's not as fresh as it should be. The best of our entrees was one of the restaurant's two specialties, eggplant rollotini. Tender slices of eggplant were crisply fried and wrapped around ricotta, with mozzarella softly melting on top and lots of marinara sauce. Angel hair pasta came on the side.

If I went back, instead of an entree I'd get an appetizer like the scallops provencale as a main course. It's large enough. Scallops, capers and chopped shallots were tumbled over grilled Italian bread brushed with tapenade; the bread soaked up a pink cream sauce seductively. Or perhaps I'd have the half pound of shrimp, perfectly steamed in their shells with Old Bay. Highly seasoned portobello mushrooms, red peppers and tomatoes were great in a deliciously greasy sort of way. Classic calamari would have been as fine as all the other appetizers if the rings had been fried a little longer.

Desserts were the traditional Italian favorites, but just a little bit better than usual. Cannoli shells were crisper and the ricotta filling creamier, the tiramisu more delicate, and the chocolate profiteroles a triumph, with a chocolate cream puff shell and a mousse-like filling. Even the cheesecake seemed fresher-tasting than usual.

Victor's deck is a casual place, so we weren't expecting formal service. On the other hand, we were hoping the busboys would stop chatting at the wait station long enough to come clear our dishes. I started putting dirty plates on the empty table behind us. Our waitress was nice but overworked, and the busboys weren't picking up any of the slack. We also weren't happy with the fact that the bartender gave her a completely different pinot grigio than the one we ordered. She started to open it in the bucket; I had to ask to see the label. When I pointed out it was the wrong wine and she went back, the bartender told her to tell us it was the only pinot grigio Victor's had. Thanks for the heads up.

Still, it's hard to be too grumpy on a beautiful evening with the sun sinking slowly into the water. Sit on the deck, have another drink of ice water - oh, I forgot; nobody ever refilled our water glasses - and store this memory away for November.

Victor's Cafe

Food**

Service**

Atmosphere***

Where: 801 Lancaster St.,

Inner Harbor

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily, weekend brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95- $8.95; Entrees: $14.95-$24.45

Call: 410-244-1722

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

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