A warm blending of the old and the new

TABLE TALK

Restaurant Review

October 30, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Don't call it a pub. Maggie Moore's Irish Bar and Restaurant is too beautiful to be a pub. True, it's loud and boisterous and a lot of people are drinking a lot of Guinness. But in spite of that, the elegance of the renovation shines through.

The restaurant is in the grand old Baltimore Equitable Society building, and many of its wonderful features have been kept intact, such as the original woodwork, 20-foot ceilings and tall windows. The mahogany bars were once the bank's counters. The vault has become a private dining room (a little claustrophobic, if you ask me, but fun).

Equally impressive is what's not original, like the muted stained glass. The interior design by Washington firm G & G Arte is warm but uncluttered, with a handsome juxtaposition of old and new. Who would think, for instance, that the chandelier in the first-floor dining room would work so well surrounded by contemporary fixtures?

Maggie Moore's food is almost secondary to the setting. The menu is designed to appeal primarily to three groups: drinkers who want upscale bar chow (I put a buffalo shrimp wrap in that category), lovers of everything Irish who like to eat shepherd's pie while they dream of returning to the Emerald Isle, and theatergoers who want dinner at a nice restaurant before the show.

Even if you don't quite fall into one of those categories, you'll find something to like - the vegetable risotto with basil oil and potato gaufrettes if you're a vegetarian; the Blarney burger if you aren't into spending money or experimenting.

Many dishes have a touch of Ireland. Why get a Caesar salad, for instance, when you can have a Donegal salad with mixed greens drizzled with vinaigrette, thin slices of red-skinned potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and a fat, crisp-edged cod cake perched on top?

The rockfish, a very Maryland dish, comes with grits made with Dubliner Irish cheese as well as an intriguing relish of corn and red pepper. The fish, unfortunately, was overcooked and oversalted, but the grits were great.

A fat, juicy pork chop, with the lingering flavor of its cider marinade, is surrounded with Irish oats flavored with peas and bacon, which make a fine starch for the meat.

Sometimes Ireland is off the radar. The kitchen, for instance, layers slices of fresh beets and dabs of goat cheese as a fine first course. The sweet, almost crunchy beets contrast with the tangy smooth cheese. A swirl of corn emulsion and balsamic sauce completes the pretty dish. Fried green tomatoes, as good as any cook from the Deep South could make, are piled with crab salad. The tomatoes are so appealing they don't need the crab, just their red pepper aioli.

There is, surprisingly, no crab cake on the menu (I thought every restaurant had to have one in Baltimore). You get your crab fix with the crab salad or the Maryland crab and corn chowder. We tried, instead, the soup of the day, a smooth, faintly sweet squash bisque with three tiny cranberry biscuits floating on top.

The menu has a list of eight Irish Favorites, all for $12, which is where I would concentrate my attention next time. The kitchen takes that pub cliche, corned beef and cabbage, and elevates it to something quite elegant. The corned beef, not too salty, was both chewy and tender, a great combination. It had a bit of cream sauce sparked with parsley on top. With it came tender-crisp cabbage and roasted root vegetables.

Maggie Moore's beef and Guinness stew comes arranged like a moat around a mound of champ (Irish mashed potatoes). It had a fine flavor and was fork tender, but arrived with almost no sauce.

By this time, if you clean your plate and indulge in the chewy sourdough rolls as we did, you won't have much room for dessert. That's OK. Maggie Moore's desserts are expensive compared with the rest of the menu and not wonderful enough to warrant the cost. Still, if you must have a sweet, the Hippodrome hazelnut torte is fairly wonderful, with pastry cream, a bit of crunch and a silky creme anglaise.

The name sounds like some fine Irish heroine, but Maggie Moore is actually co-owner John Moore's wife. He's very Irish, and his presence and that of others with wonderful accents adds a lot of authentic charm to the place. In fact, the good-natured staff is almost as much of a draw as the surroundings. When the kitchen gets a little more consistent, the food will be too.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Maggie Moore's

Address: 21 N. Eutaw St., downtown's west side.

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Appetizers: $7-$12

Entrees: $12-$26

Call: 410-837-2100.

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 Stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 1/2 Stars)

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