Renovated Donna's stays up late in Cross Keys

The menu's still smart, and the desserts are still freshly baked

Sunday Gourmet

July 24, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

For a few hours of pampering, there are few better destinations in the Baltimore area than the Village of Cross Keys, home to dozens of high-end boutiques, as well as the Red Door spa.

For sustenance to get you through those long hours of manicures and shopping, the logical choice is Donna's, which occupies a commanding corner space of the sprawling courtyard.

Eating at Donna's has always been a pleasure. Since Donna Crivello left her job designing pages at The Sun in 1991 and opened her first Donna's the next year, she has been winning local fans with her intelligent use of vegetables, her light hand with dressings and sauces and her freshly baked desserts.

Her food feels virtuous, even when it's not. A meal as hearty as flank steak topped with a mound of crisply fried onions is made lighter by turning the whole thing into a salad. The steak is sliced thinly, then placed atop a mound of cool romaine, sparingly dressed with a mild vinaigrette.

The Donna's in Cross Keys, which opened in 1997, had been undergoing renovations for more than a year, after the Red Door took over space that Donna's once shared with the now-closed Bibelot bookstore.

The new configuration, unveiled in January, shifts the location of the door and the bar, but the interior remains as clean-lined and sleek as other Donna's locations, done up in soothing shades of grass, cinnamon and burnt orange.

The menu, too, will be familiar to anyone who has dined at Donna's restaurants elsewhere in the region. (Only the original Mount Vernon location eschews some of the heartier dishes, because it lacks a large enough kitchen, Crivello said.)

The chef at Cross Keys is Mary Soto, formerly of the Ruby Lounge, which was once owned by Donna's. The restaurant's recently expanded wine list and new focus on martinis indicate it wants to expand its nighttime business.

The strategy seems to be working. On a Thursday evening, close to the 9 o'clock closing time, the place was still bustling with customers. Our waiter was nice enough -- he gave me a free cookie because he overheard that it was my birthday -- but he neglected us for long stretches, and couldn't answer a question about one of the new wines. Maybe he was tired.

There were signs that the kitchen was starting to flag too -- the meat in my steak salad wasn't entirely tender, and the cucumber slices with our hummus platter were inexplicably bitter. A giant mound of calamari, though coated in a pleasantly crisp, peppery batter, was dominated by rings with the chewy texture of rubber bands.

Most of Donna's classics, however, are as good as ever. One of my favorites remains the roasted vegetable torta, an appetizer of meltingly tender eggplant slices, caramel-ized onion, balsamic vinegar and goat cheese that sets the mouth tingling with the mellow perfection of its flavors.

Salads, as always, are a sure thing at Donna's. Every ingredient is chosen with care. In all my visits to various locations, I've never come across a single brown-edged or wilted leaf in a Donna's salad.

A hearty entree of herbed chicken breast over artichoke hearts and red potatoes was lightened by a caper-lemon sauce. And the grilled ahi tuna on a bed of soft white beans was flavored nicely with rosemary, the tuna moist beneath a peppery crust.

Donna's is known for its desserts, with baked-on-the-premises goodies like crunchy chocolate-almond biscotti infused with cinnamon and soft oatmeal-raisin cookies.

If you can spare the calories, you won't regret ordering the warm, buttery bread pudding. Unlike most of the food at Donna's, it is neither light nor sophisticated. But it's good anyway.

Donna's

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Where: 5100 Falls Road, Cross Keys

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers $4.95-$8.95, entrees $6.95-$17.95

Call: 410-532-7611

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

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