Bel Air Ropewalk takes the restaurant into new territory

A grander menu and white tablecloths

September 08, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This ain't the Ropewalk of your blurry late-night revelries in Federal Hill.

The Bel Air Ropewalk, which opened in February, might be considered the overachieving younger sibling to Federal Hill's fun-times frat boy.

Both Ropewalks are owned by brothers Marc and Bill McFaul, but the Bel Air Ropewalk is larger, less smoky, and has a much better menu. It even has white tablecloths.

The space, according to manager and brother-in-law Matt Saunders, can hold 400 patrons if they are standing with a drink in hand, or about 85 if they are sitting down for a meal.

The meandering 150-year-old building has several dining areas - some that allow smoking and some that do not - on two floors, plus an outdoor deck overlooking Main Street.

Like its Federal Hill counterpart, the Ropewalk in Bel Air boasts its share of pool tables, televisions and Republican-leaning political memorabilia. The restaurants even look sort of the same, with hardwood floors and exposed brick walls.

But the Bel Air menu is a far cry from the tenders-burgers-and-crab-dip fare in Federal Hill, though those basics are available. Even before you order, the basket of lightly herbed focaccia served with a bowl of fruity olive oil indicates you are going to get a real meal here.

The restaurant buys buffalo regularly from the nearby West Wind Bison Farms and serves a bison-based special daily.

The buffalo resembled steak, but with a subtly stronger flavor. Our knowledgeable waitress suggested I order the meat rare, and I'm glad I did, as it was easy to see that it could get tough easily.

Seafood gets a lot of attention here, and Devlin Fredenrich, the chef at Ropewalk, knows just when to pull the food out of the heat. Scallops wrapped in prosciutto that was served as an appetizer held only the slightest blush of pink in the center and were tender as could be. A salmon main course topped with a sweet-tart apple cider glaze was likewise cooked to perfection. Clams casino were enhanced with buttery, cheesy breadcrumbs.

About halfway through our meal, Marc McFaul began circling the dining room, charming us with his attention and asking customers what they liked and disliked about their meals. When pressed, we had to complain about a special of soft shell crabs, which would have been lovely, except they arrived barely lukewarm.

Sometimes we sensed that the kitchen was holding back, flavor-wise. A blue cheese dressing on the spinach and fennel salad did not pack much punch, and the "crisp crepe" it was supposed to be served in was soggy. The potato pancakes that came with the soft shell crabs were pleasingly crunchy but lacked the zing of promised horseradish.

Some of the dishes were also fussier than necessary. Not every salad needs to be topped with pistachios and strawberries and blueberries.

Like the rest of the menu, desserts are fairly ambitious at Ropewalk and include a delicious apple dumpling, consisting of a cored, slightly tart apple wrapped in dough and baked until the apple is just soft and the pastry is golden brown.

It was the best dessert of three we tried. Sweet-potato creme brulee didn't quite form a harmonious whole between its sweet-potato bottom layer, dense but mild custard in the middle and crunchy caramel on top. And the turtle cheesecake was almost too sweet and decadent, if that's possible.

As we were leaving, about 8 on a Saturday night, we saw a small crowd of people waiting to get in. This Ropewalk, which offers ambitious food in a low-key setting, deserves to be as popular as the one in Federal Hill, and I suspect it will be.

Ropewalk Tavern

Where: 117 S. Main St., Bel Air

Call: 410-420-1392

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: all major

Prices: Appetizers, $5.75-$9.75; entrees, $9.75-$24.75

Food: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

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