A little comfort food in Patterson Park

Restaurant Review

Palate

March 12, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

It seemed foolish to make reservations for 6 p.m. on a weeknight at a Patterson Park restaurant few Baltimoreans had heard of, but we did it anyway. And yes, the Parkside had our reservation. The hostess just hadn't done anything about it.

The staff had combined tables in the dining room for a large party and then seated couples at random tables, so there was no room for a party of four. In the bar area in front, most of the tables were pushed together and reserved for another large party. The hostess refused to let us sit with them on the banquette that lined one wall, although they never showed up while we were there.

She finally pushed together two tables for two on the other side of the narrow room, but in such a way that we could only sit two on one side and one on either end. ("Hello, down there. Is that my husband?") On one end, the smoke from the bar patrons was overpowering. "We have Smoke Eaters," the hostess insisted. Note to owners: They don't work. Whoever sat on the other end near the door was going to be cold this chilly night.

This story has a happy ending. Our waiter, Alphonso, saved the day, seating us on the banquette next to the reserved tables despite the hostess's objections. I should say a semi-happy ending, because if we had been in the dining room the smoke wouldn't have continued to bother us. The moral of this story is -- I'm not sure what the moral is, because even if you reserve a table in the dining room, you may not get it.

All this is too bad, because the Parkside is a charming little restaurant, with plenty of free parking in the same block, an appealing menu and decent prices. It's the kind of place where you can get a burger or salad after work, but if you're looking for something more, the small menu of entrees shows there is a serious chef back there in the kitchen.

The cuisine is American comfort food with a healthy garnish of imagination. The flavorful meatloaf, for instance, is made with ground veal, pork and beef, then wrapped in bacon. Where you might expect ketchup, you get a fiery tomato demi-glace. Fat asparagus spears come on the side, as do buttermilk mashed potatoes. But the potatoes puzzled me, because they were quite sour. I've cooked with buttermilk in my time and it just made foods lighter, not sour.

Instead of the ubiquitous crab cake, Parkside offers a "Bushel of Crabs," which is basically a puff pastry shell filled with lump crabmeat and cream. Not for the faint of heart, and even with the wilted arugula you couldn't make a case for healthy, but it was comforting.

While many of the dishes are quite spicy, with a real New Orleans accent, the Parkside's monkfish bouillabaisse is understated. The mild broth lets the meaty, pan-roasted monkfish and shellfish be the stars of the show.

The one vegetarian dish on the menu, Far East Baltimore, shows the kitchen's range. Soba noodles, vegetables and shiitake mushrooms swim in a rich, curry-sparked coconut milk sauce.

It's hard to generalize about the Parkside's food, because everything will be going along fine and then the kitchen will produce a clunker like those mashed potatoes. Prime example: Block's Party Ravioli, which turned out to be one large circle of pasta heaped with Cajun-spiced chicken, topped with another circle of pasta, sprinkled with cheese and covered in a cream sauce. For whatever reason, the flavors didn't work with the chewy pasta, and the chewy pasta didn't work either.

Delicate mussels in a roasted tomato sauce were just fine. And shrimp wrapped in bacon, with a spicy barbecue sauce and blue-cheese dressing to dip them in, were arranged on the plate so they looked downright elegant, with little strips of cucumber sitting up jauntily in the blue cheese. A clam and crab dip served in scooped-out focaccia with a few steamed clams involved too much bread and too little seafood, but was still an improvement on the usual goopy crab dip.

Desserts -- I hate to repeat myself -- were inconsistent. We tried all four. A warm apple pie and a brownie sundae were homey and satisfying. The creme brulee would have been fabulous if it hadn't been runny, but it was still pretty darn good. But the candied sweet potato pie tasted as if the pastry chef had left the sugar out.

Open for only a couple of months, the Parkside already is doing a healthy business -- at least judging from the night we were there. It's located in the space where Block's Pharmacy used to be, and the owners have kept the Rx sign in front. It could be good for what ails you, once the owners and kitchen get the new-restaurant bugs worked out.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

PARKSIDE RESTAURANT

Address: 2901 E. Baltimore St., Patterson Park

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, brunch and dinner Sunday

Prices: Appetizers: $6.95-$10.95; entrees: $10.95-$17.95

Call: 410-522-5893

FOOD ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 STARS)

SERVICE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 STARS)

ATMOSPHERE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 STARS)

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