Sun Moon & Stars turns out a galaxy of creative dishes

Eats: Dining Reviews, Hot Stuff

August 12, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The grilled-cheese sandwich at Sun Moon & Stars might be the best you've ever tasted.

The warm Swiss cheese oozes between thick slices of tangy, slightly buttery and perfectly toasted sourdough bread. Nestled alongside the sandwich is a generous handful of house-made potato chips - crisp, thin, slightly brown, delicately salted and completely free of grease. Top them off with a glass of fresh lemonade that's more sweet than tart, and you've got a treat.

Sun Moon & Stars, which opened in February on Red Brook Boulevard in a sterile office park off Owings Mills Boulevard, could have coasted along as a deli serving bagels, sandwiches and salads to the power-suit crowd. Instead, chef/owner Alan Dolid, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., decided to use that deli menu as a starting point for a restaurant that's as good as some of the finer dining spots in Baltimore.

Yes, he serves a tuna sandwich, but his tuna is mixed with an olive tapenade and served on a baguette layered with thin slices of fennel and lemon. The fennel adds crunch, and the olives and lemon combine with the tuna to create a flavor that fairly explodes in your mouth.

Maryland crab soup bears no resemblance to the tired tomato broth with wilted vegetables and tiny strings of crab found in so many restaurants. This flavorful version, served with a small field-green salad and an excellent slice of grilled bread, is loaded with an intriguing mix of veggies and crab.

The cover-all-bases menu also has daily specials, hot sandwiches like burgers and brisket, and even a potato-chip sandwich.

Customers order at the counter, and food is brought to the table. I liked that our meals were served on real plates, not paper, and stylish ones at that, and I liked that our table was cleared and the leftovers neatly wrapped.

Dolid did what he could with the atmosphere, painting several of the walls with large, colorful murals based on Italian food labels and adding colorful lamps. But even his colorful additions can't quite erase the bland, sunny office-parkiness of the place.

He has also used his love of bicycles as a motif. Bright paintings of bicyclists and photos of Dolid on his bike adorn the walls, and workers wear cute backward bicycle caps.

The cafe doesn't have a liquor license, but you're invited to bring your own wine to dinner. Entrees (available at lunchtime, too) stick to the cafe's basics-done-better philosophy and include crab cake, a rib-eye steak and grilled salmon or tuna.

The appetizers are more inventive and include grilled shrimp with apple ketchup, and fried ravioli in a house-made marinara.

Dolid even messed with the sacrosanct crab cake and came up with his fantastic crab and corn beignets: Rich dough laden with corn kernels and lumps (yes, lumps) of crab is fried until golden, then three of these fat treasures are served with a dollop of thick, fresh-tasting, herb-infused mayonnaise.

Oddly, the cafe's "special salad" was perhaps the most ordinary thing I tried - a mix of greens and tomato topped with strips of grilled chicken, cubes of pancetta and strips of fried tortilla, served with a honey-mustard dressing.

Dolid, who can often be found behind the counter chopping a chicken breast or arranging a salad, buys many of his meats and breads from vendors in New York City and smokes his own ribs and brisket.

His wife, Laura, makes desserts that include banana pudding, a chocolate buttermilk cake and lemon bars. I had a delicious tennis-ball-sized whoopee pie, featuring two discs of rich devil's food cake and a filling of intensely sweet marshmallow cream.

Sun Moon & Stars is a little tricky to find, but it's worth the search.

Sun Moon & Stars

Where: 400 Red Brook Blvd., Owings Mills

Call: 410-902-1910

Open: Monday-Wednesday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $2.95-$9.95, entrees $5.95-$15.95

Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Food: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Service: ***

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