Spicy meals in a fusion of warm-weather cuisines

Sunday Gourmet

April 10, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The only thing that made fans of Spike & Charlie's feel better about its closing was that the restaurant replacing it, the 23rd Degree, had so much potential.

The name may sound a little ominous, but we're actually talking lines of latitude here; the reference is supposed to suggest warm-weather cuisines of places like the Caribbean, Africa, India and Mexico. The kitchen takes ingredients and cooking techniques from a number of them to create a tropical fusion menu -- with, unfortunately, limited success.

The new restaurant has kept many of the features that made Spike & Charlie's appealing. It's still a wine bar. The elements of contemporary decor are still in place, warmed up with tropical color and plants -- although on our visit it seemed cavernous, maybe because nobody else was there. The menu, like Spike & Charlie's menu, has a few entrees in the $20 range but even more small plates, soups and salads for a less expensive meal, which seems to be a winning formula these days. It's concise, a good thing when a restaurant is starting out.

Expect dramatic statements and explosive flavors from the 23rd Degree's food. Even a Maryland crab cake comes with a spicy chili sauce. Garlic, hot peppers or ginger -- or all of them -- appear in some form or other in most of the dishes. You won't find much subtlety; but when the food works, it works well, like the charshu barbecued ribs, with juicy meat and crisp edges of pork fat, and the nutty flavor of toasted sesame seed and fiery cabbage as balance. Empanadas, filled with chicken, tomatoes and onions and bathed in a creamy ancho sauce, have the appeal of ethnic comfort food.

Some dishes almost work. Poisson cru, a Tahitian version of ceviche, features seafood "cooked" in lime juice with tomatoes, peppers and coconut milk. It's refreshing, but, with that many competing flavors, the various fish and shellfish are almost indistinguishable from each other. Shrimp with the fruity flavor of a tamarind marinade on slaw have quite a kick, offset by a too sweet sugar cane rum sauce. A deep-fried whole red snapper offers nothing to make it memorable, but it was better than the scallops and lobster on udon noodles that featured overcooked shellfish.

Some dishes sound scary but turn out to be right on the mark. Topping two beef medallions with bananas and serving them with a honey-rum sauce isn't something that would occur to most folks. Somehow, unlike the shrimp, the dish ends up being not too sweet. On the side is garlic mashed malanga, a root vegetable. The promised fried horseradish was nowhere to be found.

Sometimes you have to expect a liberal interpretation of an ethnic cuisine, like the 23rd Degree's tandoori chicken. It was quite tender and flavorful but didn't resemble the Indian dish. We had to ask for the naan bread and raita (yogurt and chopped vegetables). They were unrecognizable as such and, unlike the chicken, pretty poor substitutes.

The desserts that are tropical in name only are the most successful. Just as every Baltimore restaurant has to have a crab cake, it seems as if every Baltimore restaurant has to have a flourless chocolate cake for dessert, and the 23rd Degree does quite a respectable one. The chiffon pie is tropical only because it has macadamia nuts and rum in its chocolate sauce, which was fine with us. There is a Caribbean Johnny cake with slices of Asian pear on top and a guava honey sauce, but unless you like cornmeal, it probably won't appeal.

The food here had the usual ups and downs of a new restaurant that hasn't hit the ground running. I can live with that. What puzzled me more was the lack of any noticeable management keeping an eye on things. Instead, there was a bunch of youngsters, as nice as they could be, who seemed to have no training about the rudiments of service.

Just a couple of examples: The hostess took a phone call as she was about to lead us to our table, which left us in limbo while she explained the menu at length to the person on the other end. Better the bird in hand, Hon. She sat the four of us at a round table set for six, and no one ever came to take away the extra chairs or place settings. Finally, we moved them to another table ourselves. No one noticed.

The service proceeded like that -- nothing awful, just the sort of things a concerned manager would have had an eye out for.

The 23rd Degree is fighting the same fight as Spike & Charlie's before it, Abacrombie, the new Limoges and other restaurants in the city's cultural district: When there are no performances, customers tend to forget about them, no matter how good they are. That's bad news for a place that doesn't have its act together yet.

The 23rd Degree

Food: ** (2 stars)

Service: ** (2 stars)

Atmosphere: ** (2 stars)

Where: 1225 Cathedral St., Baltimore

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner; Sunday brunch; lunch pending

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11; Entrees: $17-$24

Call: 410-752-8144

Outstanding: **** (4 stars); Good: *** (3 stars); Fair or uneven: ** (2 stars); Poor: * (1 star)

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