There was a time I refused to discuss chains. If I did that now, half the restaurants that survive and flourish in Baltimore would never get reviewed by me. Not to mention the fact that these days they often have better food, better service and better prices than comparable locally owned places -- much as it pains me to admit it.
If nothing else, the well-known chains have a better chance of surviving in spots where others have failed. Case in point, the pleasant but out-of-the-way space behind the Power Plant on Pier 4. A Houlihan's recently opened there and seems to be doing well, and my guess is the name recognition factor (the chain has been around since the early '70s) is the main reason. It's sure not the foot traffic.
My favorite part of the space's latest renovation is the two-level, beautifully planted outdoor eating space; but the inside is pretty cool. There's lots of industrial chic -- high ceilings, exposed pipes, brushed stainless steel, floor-to-ceiling glass -- warmed up with cherry wood and comfortable booths. You can also perch on one of the high-top tables near the bar and open kitchen.
Houlihan's is geared to 20- and 30-somethings and to those who want to be considered just as hip as that demographic, which is just about everybody else. The menu is the first clue, with quips ("We have a dining room dress code: no naked people") and pop culture references (the heading "red red wine" on the wine list. Well, Google it if you don't get it).
The food is completely on trend, with small plates, burgers, flatbread pizzas, steaks, dinner salads, and Asian and Latino dishes. There's even a low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes (cauliflower mashed with cream cheese and butter) in case you're South Beaching it.
The food can be clever, but it can sometimes be too clever. What to make of french-fried asparagus, for instance, stacked like Lincoln Logs and served with a creamy lemon-horseradish dip?
If you order right, your meal will stand up to any chain in the city. In this category I put the pizza, a thin, crisp-edged crust covered with grilled vegetables, cheeses and pine nuts. It's hard to stop with just a slice or two, even if more food is coming. Grilled panini with chewy bread, good grilled chicken, provolone, vegetables and pesto was another winner.
The kitchen showed it could handle more sophisticated food, with a pink-centered top sirloin in a bit of red wine and butter sauce, served with whipped potatoes and fresh-tasting sweet corn cut off the cob. But on another visit, a more expensive New York strip steak was uninspired.
Shrimp marinated in lime and tomatillo had an edge of heat but also lots of flavor, and came with a nice balance of rice, black beans, chipotle slaw and a remoulade-like dipping sauce. But the Spicy Thai BBQ Shrimp appetizer brought tears to the eyes of everyone at the table. The shrimp were simply too fiery to taste of anything else but heat.
For a restaurant in the Inner Harbor, Houlihan's menu is a bit short on seafood; but salmon, simply but effectively prepared with chile verde and coriander, is a good choice. Besides shrimp, salmon is pretty much the only choice, but you can get it fixed three different ways.
Houlihan's has Little Yums for $1.99 -- trend alert! -- miniature portions of desserts like an individual berry cobbler and a chocolate cake. But I recommend the Big Yum (a warm apple pie made with flavorful apples, a gorgeous crust, crumb topping, ice cream and caramel sauce), which I would put up against any other entry in the city for Best Homey Dessert.
Houlihan's staff seems to have been picked for youth and good nature. The service isn't polished, with dishes arriving at random intervals and usually not put in front of the person who ordered them. No worries. But I blame the restaurant's training program for exchanges like the following:
Me: "Could we have some bread?"
Waiter: "No. It comes with the entree."
Me: "What if we paid you a lot of money for it?"
Waiter (eyes wild, looking like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car): "No. It comes with the entree. [Pause.] I'll go ask." He flees to the kitchen. (For the record, no bread arrives.)
Well, that's the thing, isn't it? At these upscale casual chains you get lots of style, lots of fun and pretty good food at surprisingly good prices (Houlihan's entrees come with salad or soup, and are all less than $20). As long as you stick to the program, everything's cool. Try not to rock the boat, and everyone, especially the waiter, will be happier.
Address: 621 E. Pratt St., Suite 100F
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$10.95; main courses, $11.75-$19.95
FOOD **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
SERVICE ** (2 stars)
ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)
RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *