FOOD *** ( 3 STARS)
SERVICE *** (3 STARS) ATMOSPHERE ** (2 STARS)
Let's face it. Haussner's is a hard act to follow. Not so much because of the food. In its last years, I never heard people say the food was why they ate there. But Haussner's was one of the few restaurants that could be legitimately described as a Baltimore landmark. It was wonderfully fun to be sitting at one of the white-clothed tables, even if your fish was overcooked or the famous strawberry pie didn't have much taste.
What you didn't notice was that this is an ungainly space for a restaurant. Every inch of wall space was covered in artwork (with a Rembrandt, a Durer and a Whistler among the kitsch) and every table was taken, so you never knew what a big, bare room it would be if it was half-empty.
That's what the nice folks who now own the space have to contend with, along with the legend that was Haussner's. They have gotten into the spirit of the thing with an enormous crystal chandelier and boldly patterned tiles at the entrance, but otherwise they're having trouble with the dining room. It seems empty. The new booths, oddly, are too small unless you want to cuddle up to the person you're sitting next to. The new artwork seems sparse, but I guess any artwork would seem sparse after Haussner's.
Here's the surprise, though. The food is better.
Dunstin's hasn't tried to duplicate Haussner's menu, which had hundreds of dishes. But it does serve the food of Baltimore's past, like crab imperial, fried oysters and sour beef. It offers a slow-roasted slab of prime rib, well seasoned with a little metal cup of "jus" on the side. A large, juicy New York strip can be combined with a crab cake, salmon or fat pink shrimp over linguini in Dunstin's versions of surf and turf.
The sour beef falls apart with the touch of a fork, and its full-bodied, tangy gravy is lightly thickened. The dumplings are pure comfort food. But at the same time, green vegetables like broccoli, asparagus and green beans are all fresh and steamed just to tender -- not exactly what you expect when a kitchen is cooking for the meatloaf crowd. (Yes, there is meatloaf here, as well as pot roast and roast chicken.) Other side dishes like roasted potatoes, potato salad and coleslaw all have a homey appeal.
For a true retro experience that is also fine dining in its own way, order the crab imperial. This is a luscious mound of lump crab meat flavored with a confetti of green pepper and pimiento, with the richest imperial sauce imaginable and a lovely golden brown top. Dunstin's crab cake is just as fine, if not as spectacularly decadent.
Appetizers don't quite reach these glorious heights, but then how could they? A cup of Maryland crab soup is adequate without being memorable. Oysters Rockefeller feature small sweet oysters and good creamed spinach, but for some reason they are served on a bed of table salt, not rock salt, which gets on the oysters if you aren't careful. The clams casino, an unorthodox but decent version made with provolone and bacon, have the same problem.
Unfortunately Dunstin's felt it had to have strawberry pie -- made by the same person who used to make Haussner's, according to our waitress. This is just a bad idea. The pie has even less flavor than I remember, maybe because winter strawberries don't have much taste. If you want a retro dessert, consider the chocolate cake with white icing and a maraschino cherry on top. My favorite was nonretro, the creme brulee cheesecake with a vein of caramelized sugar running through it.
Of all the new restaurants that have opened up this year, Dunstin's Steak & Seafood is probably the one people are most curious about because of its predecessor. There will never be another Haussner's, of course, but Dunstin's does a good job of being Dunstin's.
DUNSTIN'S STEAK & SEAFOOD
Address: 3242 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers: $6.25-$9.95, entrees: $12.95-$25.95
RATINGS: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: