The restaurant year that was

Openings, closings and creeping entree prices marked 2006

December 31, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

A lot happened on the local restaurant scene this year, but the biggest trend wasn't a happy one. Let's call it entree creep.

At the beginning of the year I was still talking about places trying to keep their main courses under that magic $20 figure so they would be considered moderate. That now seems long ago and far away. Consider yourself lucky if the entrees on a restaurant's menu are priced under $30.

Of course, there are exceptions; but when a bar in Fells Point has entrees starting at $19.95 and ending at $28.95 (I'm thinking of the last restaurant I went to, John Steven Ltd.), you know times have changed.

On the good news front, this was a year of comebacks. The most notable one was Edward Kim, who made a name for himself at Ixia and Soigne, then left Baltimore for a job in Washington. He returned to reinvent Saffron, the Indian fusion restaurant in Mount Vernon, which now serves his quirky but wonderful version of modern American cuisine.

Nancy Longo never exactly left, but her Fells Point restaurant Pierpoint had dropped off many Baltimoreans' radar. With the opening of her second restaurant, Longo's in Greenspring Station, she's re-established herself as one of the area's celebrity chefs. There were some new-restaurant glitches when Longo's opened, but the food has been good from the get-go.

This one is just a rumor, but an intriguing one. Folks who lived here in the early 1990s will remember Benny Gordon, owner and chef of Benny's Jazz and Supper Club and before that Restaurant 2110 in Charles Village. People knew him because he frequently made appearances on local TV shows. I've heard he's now cooking at a restaurant in Laurel, but I haven't tracked him down yet.

A comeback that's gotten almost no press is the return of Andy Thomas to Donna's. He worked at Donna's in the BMA and the Ruby Lounge in the '90s, then moved on to the Black Olive, Spike & Charlie's and the Wine Market. His cooking has transformed Donna's in Charles Village from a coffee shop into a real - if casual - restaurant (with a liquor license).

How about the return of Michael Marx? The former owner of Blue Agave in Federal Hill sold his Mexican restaurant and tequileria because he was tired of the grind. He dropped out of sight for a year. Now he's back, partnering with a friend to open Rub, a Texas barbecue place in South Baltimore. Some of us expected never to hear from him again, as was the case with Barry Rumsey and wife Deborah Mazzoleni, who sold their popular New American restaurant The Bicycle in Federal Hill to open a restaurant closer to their home in Stoneleigh, then ended up in Oregon.

Both Blue Agave and The Bicycle, by the way, have thrived under their new owners, perhaps because they wisely decided not to make many changes.

While I'm at it, I should mention a couple of comebacks that didn't work out: Two once-popular restaurants, Pazza Luna in Locust Point and Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix, both closed this year.

I'll put one last trend under the heading "size matters:" This year, appetizers continued to get larger as desserts got smaller. Of course, this wasn't true across the board, but more and more people are ordering two or three starters as their dinner, and restaurants seem to be responding by offering more dishes that double as first courses and small plates.

Some local places have also found that customers who usually don't order dessert will do so if it's dainty, whimsical and priced accordingly. (See Vin's "World's Tiniest Desserts" menu.)

Finally, as the year winds down I always like to mention a few of the highs and lows of my restaurant going, with the caveat that these only apply to the places I visited in 2006:

Best new restaurant --Salt, Jason Ambrose's stylish New American bistro in the Butcher's Hill-Patterson Park area.

Weirdest new restaurant concept --The menu of Spanish and Japanese food (not fused, thank goodness) that can be found at Nasu Blanca, the chic little restaurant that opened this fall in Locust Point. What's surprising is how well it works.

New restaurant with the most pizazz --Vin in Towson is guaranteed to bring out the inner hipster in you.

Worst name for a Japanese restaurant --The now-closed Kamikazis in the Belvedere.

Best use of black truffles --Aldo's signature dish, tournedos Rossini, which also involves excellent beef, foie gras, a wild mushroom sauce and an oozy four-cheese risotto.

Best alternative to an expensive steakhouse chain --Now that the Milton Inn in Sparks has added a separate menu of high-quality steaks and a la carte sides, you can get the kind of food you really like.

Best place to go for Italian home cooking --Sammy's Trattoria in Mount Vernon.

Best food it's worth being packed in like sardines for --Buy a pair of ear plugs and head for the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia.

Restaurant most worth giving a second chance --The Parkside near Patterson Park. There were a few new-restaurant problems when I ate there; but the owners seemed so anxious to make this charming little place better, I'd definitely try it again.

Most surprising place to find great food --That would be the Park Plaza Shopping Center in Severna Park. Near the Ledo's Pizza and the Dress Barn is Cynthia's, which may be my runner-up for best new restaurant to open in 2006.

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