Quiet opening, delightful promise

November 12, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Food: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

Service: ** (2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1.2 STARS)

Nancy Longo, being the savvy restaurateur that she is, has opened Longo's, her new restaurant, very quietly. While she's not as much of a local celebrity as she was when her Fells Point restaurant, Pierpoint, was in its heyday, her new project should be big news on the local restaurant scene. Instead, it's been pretty much flying under the radar.

It's a good way to get the kinks out. As of my visit, Longo's had been open some six weeks for lunch and three weeks for dinner. We were lucky enough to get in on the Preview Three Course Dinner for $29.95, which was pretty much the same food listed in the a la carte menu on the restaurant's Web site (longorestaurant.com), only significantly cheaper. Smart marketing. If anything goes wrong in the early days - as it always does - it's hard to complain when you're paying about half what you'll be paying when Longo's switches over to its regular menu.

The stars for service reflect what I assume are a new restaurant's glitches. It took the busboy 10 minutes to clear the booth we were waiting for, and then there were still crumbs on the table and seats. Our waitress was great, with just the right amount of Old Baltimore charm; but she was overworked and no one was picking up the slack. We had to beg for bread and waited endlessly for the check. Mostly we just felt a little neglected.

Nothing major has been done to the space to transform it from Mick & Tony's, the last place that was there. That's not a problem because it was a very handsome restaurant. The most noticeable change is that the tables and booths have large red lampshades hanging over them. Look up and you're staring into three bright, bare light bulbs. The dining room/bar area is a long, narrow space; and with the lack of fabric, noise reverberates. The front is much the preferable place to sit, with upholstered chairs at the white-clothed tables and cozy booths. It's Longo's three-star section. (The back section looked nice, but it wasn't open.)

All of this is excusable because the food is good. Longo's cooking seems revitalized. Like most talented chefs, she cooks seasonally. The current menu is a combination of traditional Maryland fare and Asian dishes, but it isn't really fusion cuisine. There's a play on bento box, for instance, which she calls a "Balto box." The rectangular Japanese container with dividers inside is filled with shore favorites: a small smoked crab cake fat with lumps of crab (her signature dish at Pierpoint), a couple of irresistible clams casino made with pancetta instead of bacon, plump cornmeal fried oysters and a little coddie. It may be more fried seafood than you want, but everything is delicious.

A Chesapeake White Seafood Chowder, with crab, clams and one tender whole oyster, came to the table no hotter than room temperature; but the delicately flavored, silky cream soup was so appealing, it was gone before we could complain. A hush-puppy-size bit of corn pudding decorated it.

The chowder faces stiff competition from the Sage Shrimp, a couple of enormous shrimp draped over creamy cheese grits, with a piquant bit of tapenade to give them a jolt. Just a few steps behind them is Longo's twist on a trio of Asian appetizers: tender dumplings stuffed with rockfish and ginger, Thai spring rolls filled with ground chicken and noodles, and seaweed salad.

For once, the main courses were every bit as good as the appetizers. Longo has a creative way with vegetables, and looks beyond the usual suspects (broccoli, asparagus) to seasonal greens like Swiss chard with its dark green leaves and red veins, and root vegetables like parsnips.

Rockfish epitomized everything there is to love about really fresh fish, carefully prepared. Lentils and a dice of roasted fall vegetables were an unexpected bonus. It was a tossup whether the rockfish or the full-flavored rib pork chop was better. The chop was slightly charred but still moist. Sweet potatoes, whipped with goat cheese to give them a little edge, and a saute of parsnips and Brussels sprouts rounded out a superb fall plate.

A braised lamb shank was good, but what elevated the dish was its bed of black-eyed peas, spicy lamb sausage and Swiss chard. In fact, the only entree we tried that was in any way ho-hum was a perfectly acceptable grilled tenderloin with a potato hash and broccoli raab.

Desserts vary depending on the mood of the pastry chef, but there is usually an espresso pot de creme (espresso seems to be a code word for chocolate, or at least mocha, so don't panic) and a second espresso concoction. If tiramisu were a chocolate fudge cake, this second dessert would be it. Not a mocha lover? Go for the buttery-crusted apple tart with homemade ice cream or the comforting bread pudding.

So Longo's is up and rolling - or it will be, once it gets its service problems under control. So many restaurants have opened and closed in this space it's hard to be optimistic. But let's see what a creative chef working with fine ingredients can do.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at baltimoresun.com/large.

Longo's

Address: Greenspring Station, 2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville

Hours: Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Small plates, $6-$14; main courses, $ 22-$26

Call: 410-339-6300

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