Bicycle: new owner, same fun ride

Restaurant Review

Palate

March 26, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Six years after Barry Rumsey and Deborah Mazzoleni opened The Bicycle and then expanded into the next rowhouse because it was such a success, they did something surprising.

They sold it.

This was startling news to those who were enamored of chef-owner Rumsey's flamboyantly eclectic cuisine. Particularly as the restaurant was bought by a 26-year-old and his parents.

But a month after new owner Nicholas Batey took over the kitchen, patrons are breathing a sigh of relief. It looks like Batey is following the If-It-Ain't-Broke rule.

That means, for instance, you can still experience the sensual interplay of sushi-grade tuna and ripe avocado, the two soft textures interspersed with flying fish roe for crunch. A fiery, faintly sweet peanut dressing gives intensity to the dish.

The corn and crab soup, with its appealing duo of cream and spice and just a hint of cilantro to lend freshness, was a former must-have (if you could stand the heat). It still is.

The menu is still an appealing hodgepodge of global cuisines, with an emphasis on explosive flavor. In any given dish, you might come upon lemongrass, white truffle oil, poblano peppers, or sherry. English peas and a classic bordelaise coexist gracefully with black sticky rice and banana leaves. A jaunty waffle fry may garnish a dish -- or the garnish may be spring green mache. The plate always seems to have two delicious sauces, even when one would do.

If you yearn for simplicity in your food, The Bicycle is not for you. A lot is going on in every dish, but only occasionally do you wish that more was less. (The menu even says that because of "the intricacy and number of ingredients" in dishes, you should let the kitchen know in advance about any food allergies.)

But one of the simplest dishes is also one of the best. Homemade ravioli, soft and chewy and plump with lobster meat, are bathed in a smooth, slightly lemony beurre blanc with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano drifting over the top. The kitchen also shows restraint with a pan-fried oyster salad, featuring incredibly tender oysters, jewel-green leaves of lettuce and a pas de deux of aioli and chipotle-sparked vinaigrette.

Sometimes elaboration is just what's called for. Delicate but meaty red snapper, baked in banana leaves so it's very moist, becomes more intriguing when a curry sauce and papaya chutney enter the mix. An Asian slaw and black sticky rice round out the complex plate.

The Bicycle's menu is a little more meat-heavy than you might expect. Tender braised beef ribs are emphatically sauced with an Asian sweet-and-sour glaze. They rest on a bed of softly whipped potatoes. Although rib lamb chops have become trendy, The Bicycle's meaty loin chops show you how foolish it is to discriminate against them. They are delicious. If I were in the kitchen, I would cut back on the chutney, which adds too much ginger and sweetness to the dish, and let the two fat chops speak for themselves. Mashed sweet potatoes are the almost perfect companion.

Batey has made one obvious addition to the menu: a crab cake. I understand why. Even chains add crab cakes to their menus when they move into Baltimore. It's a good crab cake. It's a good choice for anyone who likes the familiar, for anyone who isn't in the market for searing flavors and bold contrasts. But it isn't what the kitchen does best.

Desserts, in comparison to the rest of the meal, are almost stark. There are usually only two sauces elaborately decorating every plate and only a few garnishes. That comes as something of a relief at this point in the meal. If the apple tart in phyllo with creme anglaise is on the dessert menu, order it at once and don't plan to share. Otherwise, the fruity bread pudding is a worthy choice, or the banana cream pie with a chocolate crumb crust. The restaurant's dense chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, though, was simply too much of a good thing after the meal that came before it.

Under its new owners, The Bicycle is still the hip little bistro Baltimoreans know and love. The service is both casual and polished, just as it was. Apparently most, if not all, of the staff has stayed on.

You still walk back past the open kitchen to the dining rooms in back if you don't want to sit in the bar. The minimalist rooms, decorated in bold colors with a French bicycle poster or two for art, are as chic as ever. In good weather, you can eat in the charming courtyard in back.

And besides an admirably diverse wine list, there are still the restaurant's signature 18 bottles for $18, a price that hasn't gone up in six years. Like so much else here, that's admirable.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

THE BICYCLE

Address: 1444 Light St.

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for dinner only.

Prices: Small plates, $7-$14; large plates, $21-$32.

Call: 410-234-1900.

FOOD *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

SERVICE *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 STARS)

RATINGS / / Outstanding ****, Good ***, Fair or uneven **, Poor *

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