When is a bistro not a bistro? When it's a fine-dining restaurant? When it has expense-account prices? Both of those things are true of the new Timothy Dean Bistro in Fells Point, and yet the name fits -- I think because "bistro" is the new code word for "high energy" if you're under 40 and "noisy" if you're over.
In some ways, it's fitting that Timothy Dean opened at roughly the same time as Jeannier's closed. The latter was Baltimore's best example of a formal French restaurant before its chef-owner retired. It was an establishment that belonged to another era.
Timothy Dean, who trained under French chef Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate, also sprinkles his menu with quenelles, tuiles, mousselines, confits and mirepoix. The food is just as ambitious as Jeannier's was. (No prosaic steak frites here.) But the atmosphere is boisterous, the dress code all but nonexistent, and there's nary a white tablecloth to be seen: This is the new generation of French restaurants. Although Dean has described his food as American contemporary with French influences, there are a few too many truffles involved for me to completely agree.
The new restaurant is in the spot just off Broadway where Chester's Steakhouse and then Montego Bay Grille came and went. Rita St. Clair, the doyenne of Baltimore bistro design after her stellar work at Petit Louis in Roland Park, has created a chic, sleek setting to showcase Dean's good food. The dining room and bar are small, seating fewer than a hundred people, and the handsome copper-topped tables are packed closely together. Somehow, the effect is warm and convivial rather than cramped.
The current menu is short and sweet. (It's an introductory menu; eventually both the menu and the wine list will be more extensive.) Dean uses A-list ingredients and sophisticated techniques to turn out mostly wonderful food. You can sample his mentor's influence by ordering the Palladin chestnut soup, smooth as spun silk, with a whole chestnut and an ethereal, truffle-scented dumpling. A whisper of truffle shows up again in the only appetizer that isn't actually a light meal: two fine, fat scallops perched on two risotto cakes roughly the same size and shape. It's a witty dish; by candlelight, it looks like four scallops on top of each other.
Two other starters could be paired with a salad and you'd have supper. Dean invigorates mussels by bathing them in a spicy coconut milk sauce fragrant with Thai seasonings. A creamy sweet corn emulsion turns out to be the ideal accompaniment to an enormous crab cake, plenty of sweet crab with a minimum of binder. (But where oh where is its promised jalapeno cheese polenta?)
Dean rescues salmon from the ho-hum category by cooking it perfectly, bedding it on braised leeks and pepping it up with a delicate drizzle of barbecue sauce. Sea bass in a crisp-edged potato crust over asparagus with just a hint of parmesan is another thumbs up entree.
The meat, if possible, is even better than the fish, with the Oscar going to an enormous, pink-centered lamb chop, at once sweet and slightly gamy, showcased by a fruity but not too sugary fig sauce and beautifully matched with Savoy cabbage. Diners like me, bored to distraction by other restaurants' "squash medleys" and broccoli florets, will be happy with Dean's respect for vegetables.
That respect makes the handsome house-smoked rib eye steak all the more puzzling. This is a fine piece of meat, and it can almost stand on its own. It almost has to, with only a dark wash of lentil stew and red wine sauce covering the plate. It feels as if something is missing, and I don't mean frites.
Timothy Dean isn't really into carbs; there are some warm little rolls flavored with cheese that come straight from the oven -- one apiece unless you ask for more -- and two desserts. This is about the only place Dean wanders into cliche territory, but the creme brulee is enlivened with fresh strawberries and the molten-centered chocolate cake is rescued by, yes, truffle ice cream.
Our evening here starts badly. We're seated near a large group of people who keep taking flash pictures (Hey, with a digital camera we're not wasting film so we can take the same shot over and over again!) until someone at another table asks them to stop. Do they think they're eating at a Chuck E. Cheese? This is my new pet peeve --replacing noise, which I've gotten used to, and over-salting, which I haven't. Get a private room.
Next, a couple walk in with a baby, who cries off and on throughout their dinner. Probably the dining room noise is upsetting, and it's way past bedtime.
After taking our drink order, our waitress disappears for so long that we wonder if she's out buying the bottle of wine. But then she regroups and delivers stellar service. It says a lot about the quality of the food and the general niceness of the staff that we end the evening with the negatives almost completely forgotten.
Our meal is well paced, and we like the personal attention from Dean's partner Rick Wallace, who is a comforting presence in the front of the house. Even Dean comes out of the kitchen and checks with every table once his night's work is done. It leaves me with the feeling that if any upscale restaurant can succeed in this sketchy location, Timothy Dean Bistro will be the one.
Timothy Dean Bistro
Food: *** 1/2
Where: 1717 Eastern Ave., Fells Point
Hours: Open nightly for dinner, Saturday and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$13; Entrees: $17-$26