Restaurants can transport diners to faraway cuisines



Dining out is about so much more than just filling your stomach. At some restaurants, the alchemy of evocative atmosphere and kitchen magic work together to transport you to a different time and place.

In 2005, the restaurants I reviewed took me to Ethiopia and Mexico, as well as a confessional, a tropical paradise, a Middle Eastern hookah bar, a craft show and a Carolina barbecue shack, among other places.

Here are some of the region's newest restaurants that offer good food plus an imagined journey out of modern-day Maryland, at least for a few hours.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's LIVE section misstated the phone number for the restaurant Cheeseburger in Paradise in Pasadena. The correct number is 410-761-1003. The Sun regrets the error.

Zeeba Lounge 916 Light St., Federal Hill, 410-539-7900

Visiting Zeeba is like stepping into a sumptuous Middle Eastern living room, all plush sofas, beaded curtains and rich, deep colors. The main attraction here is the hookah, a tall water pipe that lets customers inhale flavored tobacco. The food, pretty nibbles like saffron-infused shrimp and garlicky hummus, brings to mind an elegant dinner party.

Mr. Chelsea's Barbecue 10221 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-9873

Owner Keith Henze of Garrison Catering has created a Carolina barbecue shack in the midst of an Owings Mills shopping center. Worn-looking benches, a table with squeeze bottles of sauces like John's Alabama Barbecue Sauce and Keith's Special Red Barbecue Sauce, and corn bread still in the skillet behind the counter all set the stage, and classic fare like smoked ribs, pulled pork and collards with plenty of vinegar get the mouth watering.

Kiko's Cucina Mexicana 8806 Belair Road, Perry Hall, 410-529-4215

The trick here is the double door. After walking through the standard one, you almost immediately walk through a rough wooden one in a bright yellow frame. Suddenly, you've left the gray world of Belair Road and wandered onto a sunny Mexican street.

A row of faux windows with purple frames sit high on the walls, which are painted in sunny yellows and sky blues. Bright flags are strung from the ceilings, and even the paper flowers on the tables explode in purples, greens and yellows. Tables are topped in blue and white tile, and food is served on primary-color ceramic plates.

The cheery restaurant serves classic Mexican favorites, from fajitas and tacos to more ambitious offerings like snapper vera cruz and chicken mole.

Dukem 1100 Maryland Ave., 410-385-0318

Ethiopian food is friendly food. Scooping up food with tangy, crepe-like injera bread erases the formalities of dining out and turns the meal into a relaxed experience. And Dukem's food, rich in lentils, vegetables and lean meats, all warmly spiced, strikes that rare balance between three important goals of good food: It is healthful, filling and delicious. Sister to the renowned Washington restaurant of the same name, Baltimore's Dukem nourishes both body and soul.

Crafter's Cafe 7612 Belair Road, Overlea, 410-882-5335

Crave a little decoupage with your dessert? Owner Susan Farace has created a cafe that hosts crafting classes, sells locally made items and serves sandwiches, salads, soups and desserts. It's more than a cafe, it's a place to spend an afternoon, make or buy a craft, then recharge with some coffee, a grilled panini sandwich and a cookie.

Ale Mary's 1939 Fleet St., Fells Point, 410-276-2044

Is this a restaurant or a confessional? Owners Tom and Bill Rivers had way too much fun outfitting their little bar with confessional panels, holy water fonts and chalices. Catholics themselves, they say they are poking gentle fun at their religion. But the food is seriously good, a mix of bar standards like shrimp steamed in Natty Boh and Old Bay and impressive entrees like thick slices of roast pork with rosemary and a decadent cabernet sauce.

Cheeseburger in Paradise 8026 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena, 410-761-1004

The bigwigs behind Cheeseburger in Paradise - a partnership between musician Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Holdings and Outback Steakhouse - have created a tropical oasis so convincing that patrons often show up in tropical T-shirts, even in cold weather. Before you get past the front desk, there are brightly painted chairs, beach blankets and buckets on the walls, and palm trees growing out of the concrete floors. The bar is draped liberally with palm fronds, tiki lights and even life vests. Big fruity drinks and a menu of ribs, fish and the eponymous burger complete the scene.

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