Sink into a couch for tapas downtown

Restaurant Review

August 20, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Sometimes the only way a restaurant can survive is to stop being a restaurant. That's what Eden's Lounge, the lively hot spot at Eager and Cathedral streets, has decided to do. Smart move.

I didn't eat there when it first opened a year ago. It seemed to be a restaurant in flux, and I was waiting for it to settle down. At the time, Eden's Lounge had both a small-plates menu in the lounge and a fine-dining menu in the restaurant proper. It was the latter that worried me. History has shown that people no longer want fine dining at this location, and there have been many reincarnations of the old Eager House to prove it.

Eden's Lounge is a place to drink, dance, listen to live music and eat the New American and Ethiopian versions of tapas, which is all the food that's offered now. The space is large, with a bar in front and three separate dining areas, each with a distinctly different feel. We were seated in the darkest and coziest lounge, decorated in a combination of vintage chic and funky contemporary, with beaded lamps, gauzy curtains, intriguing art, soft couches and coffee tables.

As I sank into the snuggly couch I wondered why anyone would want to eat sitting upright in a straight chair. After a $3 happy hour margarita (tip: don't order wine by the glass here), I had just about decided to throw out my dining room table and chairs and replace them with comfy sofas and low coffee tables.

The kitchen is slow, but that matters less when you're curled up on a sofa listening to music. You have to be in the mood to have this kind of dining experience or don't bother to come here. The staff is warm and friendly, but it's not as if professional servers are waiting on you. They are more like people welcoming you into their home, and if they decide to chat with some other friends for awhile, well, you'll just have to wait to order.

What used to be an expensive place to eat has become much more reasonable, especially if you're ordering from the happy hour menu between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. More than half the small plates are on this menu, at almost half the price. Unfortunately that doesn't include one of my favorites -- the quesadilla, fat with pieces of chicken, mango and avocado. Delicious, but pricey at $12. Especially when you consider that the tender little rib lamb chops in a fruity pomegranate-wine sauce, three of them, with asparagus, are very fine and cost $10.

Eden's tapas menu emphasizes meat dishes, but there are a couple of seafood and vegetarian choices. Some are quite fiery, and many of them are sweet to varying degrees. Sometimes the sweetness works wonderfully well, as in the guava-glazed baby back ribs or the plate of stir-fried vegetables.

Other times, not so much. The mango-glazed shrimp over a saffron rice timbale tasted as if the shrimp had been glazed with pancake syrup, not mango.

We were disappointed by how many things weren't available -- an Ethiopian lamb dish, a chicken roulade filled with red peppers and goat cheese, and most notably injera, the spongy Ethiopian flat bread that can serve as plate and utensil.

Instead of the injera, we got pita triangles with the Ethiopian beef tibs. These sauteed cubes of beef seasoned with the hot sauce called berbere were the one small plate we didn't polish off because the meat was leathery tough. The little sides, artfully arranged with the beef, were the best part of the dish. They vary according to what the kitchen feels like cooking, our waitress told us, but usually include collard greens, lentils or potatoes.

Eden's Lounge has specialty coffee drinks and an impressive dessert list, with choices like tiramisu, cheesecake and baklava. But the only one available was a banana cake that didn't have much flavor.

My husband and I stopped by again another night, and this time we did get injera with a lamb and vegetable small plate; but the bread was cold, as if it came straight from the fridge.

The staff was even nicer than before. I would assume they had spotted me except for one odd thing: When the check for the two of us came, a 20-percent service charge had been tacked on. The menu says "a 20 percent gratuity will be added to all parties of 6 or more," but apparently tips can be added at the server's discretion.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

FOOD ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 stars)

SERVICE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

EDEN'S LOUNGE

Address: 15 W. Eager St., Mount Vernon

Hours: Open every night with a small-plates menu

Prices: $8-$15

Call: 410-244-0405

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