10 great menu moments of 2005

Restaurant Review

December 25, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

If you had asked me before I went back over my reviews what 2005 was like in the local restaurant scene, I would have said, "uneventful." Wow, was that wrong.

It completely slipped under my radar that I had gone to an astounding 37 new places this year. And that doesn't count restaurants that essentially reinvented themselves, such as Charleston, which now has a prix fixe small plates menu.

The attention I had to pay to new places left only nine weeks to revisit old friends like Ten-o-Six and Tio Pepe. (Just-opened restaurants are always my priority.) Earlier in my career the division was probably closer to 50-50. I used to try to get back to Baltimore's name restaurants every four or five years, even though they never seemed to change much. People liked reading about them. That no longer seems possible with the number of places that keep opening.

Of course, some of the new ones I reviewed this year have already closed -- 23rd Degree in Spike & Charlie's spot and Pascale's in Canton come to mind. But many of them seem to be thriving. Maybe it's just that so many people are eating out so much more these days.

This year's new restaurants were all over the map, both in type and quality. One of the notable trendlets was the strong showing French bistros made. I had fine meals at Timothy Dean, Limoges and Brasserie Tatin. Upscale chains (sorry, restaurant groups) continued to arrive, including the Capital Grille, a new Ruth's Chris, and the Oceanaire Seafood Room, which I'll review next week. And small plates haven't lost steam, with Pazo, Lillies, Charleston, the Metropolitan in Annapolis and Leelynn's in Ellicott City joining the fray.

I got four-star food at the reinvented Charleston, and four-star service at the new Capital Grille. But more usually, it was an appetizer here and a main course there that lingered in my memory. With that in mind, here are my 10 Knock-Your-Socks-Off Dishes for 2005:

Gazpacho that tasted like the essence of summer, made with three varieties of tomatoes, lobster lumps and curried creme fraiche at Charleston, Inner Harbor East

Crisp-crusted pizza topped with grilled eggplant, sweet red peppers, fresh mozzarella and green olives at Pazo in Fells Point

A tempura soft shell crab with yellow curry sauce and macadamia nuts at Ten-o-Six in Federal Hill

Culorzones, little pasta pillows filled with butternut squash and sauced with browned butter at Ixia in Mount Vernon

The bouillabaisse with rockfish and shellfish in a citrusy coconut milk broth at Joy America in the American Visionary Art Museum.

Quail, warm and scented with hazelnut, paired with chocolate sauce on a bed of mache at Metropolitan in Annapolis

A well-marbled Delmonico at the Capital Grille in the Inner Harbor -- artery-clogging heaven

The enormous, pink-centered lamb chop with a fig sauce and Savoy cabbage at Timothy Dean in Fells Point

A cheesecake with creme brulee topping at Mick & Tony's Baltimore Prime, Green Spring Station

The multi-layer cake of mousses and chocolate with a fragile creme anglaise at Brasserie Tatin in Roland Park

In case these sound a little high-falutin' to you, let me nominate the Five Guys hamburger for Best Fast-Food Burger of the year (in Harborplace), the Metropolitan Coffee House and Wine Bar in Federal Hill as the Best New Neighborhood Restaurant, and Miss Shirley's in Roland Park as Best New Breakfast Place.

The Best New Hot Spot is Pazo in Fells Point (have a pizza and a glass of champagne in the lounge). The Best Makeover Move was turning Tampico, a Mexican restaurant, into Limoges, a mostly French bistro (Mount Vernon).

Here's to many more new restaurants in the new year -- they are, after all, what keeps my job interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind a breather in 2006 to go back to some places that have grown or changed in the years since they first opened.

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elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

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If you have questions or comments of a general nature about the restaurant scene, please send e-mail to elizabeth.large@baltsun.com.

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