Ixia elegantly fuses comfort and adventure

November 06, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

With its extravagantly high ceilings, deep blue walls, pop art paintings, gold-colored leaf columns, gauzy curtains, chandeliers and sparkly mobiles, Ixia looks like a stage set. If you like your food as theater, executive chef Kevin Miller delivers a bravura performance.

When the restaurant opened 4 1/2 years ago, Miller was sous chef under Edward Kim, who left after a few months to open his own restaurant elsewhere. Miller took over the kitchen, and soon after changed the Asian fusion menu to something more in line with his own interests and experience.

The current menu is - what? - Mediterranean fusion, I suppose, with an iceberg lettuce salad, lobster mac and cheese, and pork belly thrown in for good measure. But the food is more mainstream than it was when Ixia first opened, with dishes for both adventuresome and conservative eaters.

Miller understands the basic requirements of a fine restaurant meal: It should look beautiful and taste good. His food is often clever (maroon carrots, for instance) but never just for the sake of cleverness. The ingredients are elegantly arranged on the white plates, but the food never seems overly fussed with. A meaty white fillet of sea bass is banded with a strip of prosciutto, then surrounded with a scattering of bright red diced pimiento and bright green fava beans. The result is visually stunning and excites the taste buds as well.

This time of year the seasonal menu has comfort food disguised as haute cuisine - dishes like lamb shank braised in port and a juicy, well-marbled rib eye steak, so large it almost drapes over the edge of the plate, with a delicately rich square of potatoes Anna and a fat round of gorgonzola-tarragon butter on top. Giant tiger shrimp are nestled in a bed of creamy cheddar grits with the salty sharp flavor of Tasso ham for contrast.

But vegetarians can be comforted too, most notably by the culorzones, little pasta pillows filled with butternut squash. The nutty sweetness of the brown butter sauce is a sensual complement. Have them as a small plate or a main course with broccoli rabe and maroon carrots.

Speaking of sensuality, if cashmere were a food instead of a fiber, it would have the texture of Ixia's Hudson Valley foie gras. The kitchen pairs it with one fat sea scallop. A fine dice of caramelized pineapple provides a sweet, fresh note.

Lobster mac and cheese is, of course, the ultimate comfort food. Miller adds crab to make the pasta and fontina even more decadent. Half a lobster tail lounges negligently beside the dish. But in one of the few slip ups of the evening, the ramekin of pasta was cold at its center.

Not every dish is a clogged artery waiting to happen. Plump little mussels swim in a delicate, Thai-inspired sauce of citrus, ginger and coconut milk. A warm porcini mushroom and arugula salad is intriguingly combined with prosciutto and candied shallots (but it would have benefited from a bit less dressing). The house-cured salmon is pleasant enough, but the accompaniments make the dish: cubes of smooth, ripe avocado, creme fraiche, fresh dill and crisp flatbread.

Ixia's bar and lounge business has grown by leaps and bounds since it opened, and people drop by for late-night dessert and coffee as well as drinks and small plates. Desserts are elaborate and intriguing, although the accompaniments sometimes overshadow the main event. Eat the soft, freshly made gingersnaps and caramelized pear that come with the chilled pumpkin pot de creme and you may never get to custard. But with choices like a molten chocolate cake with triple espresso ice cream, white chocolate bread pudding, and a warm apple crepe with black pepper caramel sauce, you'll find yourself scraping the plate to get every smidgen.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

IXIA

Address: 518 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only.

Small plates: $8-$15

Entrees: $18-$29

Call: 410-727-1800

Food: *** 1/2 (Three and a half stars)

Service: *** (Three stars)

Atmosphere: *** (Three stars)

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

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