Brasserie 10 South deserves to succeed

restaurant review

March 01, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Rarely has a restaurant with so much going for it had so little going for it as the Brasserie 10 South.

First, let me count the ways this new downtown restaurant deserves to succeed.

Atmosphere: The dining room is jazzy, comfortable and stylish.

The menu: The French-inspired American food with an Asian accent is creative and ambitious.

Price: Brasserie 10 South isn't exactly inexpensive, but there is an early-bird menu and "weekly features" that are affordable.

Service: The young staff is extremely nice, and while the service wasn't polished when we ate there, it was attentive and courteous.

No crab cake on the menu: In other words, the kitchen isn't caving in to the lowest-common-denominator customer demand.

The wine list: There's plenty on the mostly California list in the moderately priced range, and plenty of selections by the glass.

Chef Cyrus Keefer: Most important, Brasserie 10 South has a talented head of its kitchen. (I'll go into more detail in a minute.)

Now let me count the reasons I worry about this engaging newcomer:

Signage: Brasserie 10 South is located under a nightclub, Lux, and that was the name of the restaurant at first. All you'll see when you approach it is a truly ugly fluorescent-bright sign that says: "Lux An Upscale Eatery & Nightclub."

"Eatery" sounds like a diner, and you just can't label yourself "upscale" and be taken seriously. If the owners want Brasserie 10 South to succeed, they're going to have to get rid of that sign.

Customers: Or rather, the lack thereof. If after being open over a month you have one table filled the whole evening, even if your opening was very, very soft, you're in trouble. Plus, it's depressing for the people eating at that one table.

Location: Yes, you're between two hotels; but those tourists are going to head to the Inner Harbor for "real" Baltimore seafood. For the kind of imaginative cuisine Chef Keefer is producing, Baltimoreans are used to going to Federal Hill or Fells Point.

The recession: Let's face it. Folks just aren't feeling very experimental right now. Neighborhood restaurants, steakhouses and Italian restaurants (all comfort food dispensers) are more likely to succeed in this economy.

Atmosphere: Little things are annoying: The dark "leather" of our booth was torn, so the white stuffing showed. The clever little votive oil lights that are everywhere have a faint but intrusive smell, which may interfere with the enjoyment of your meal. If the place does get busy, it will be quite noisy.

Service: If Brasserie 10 South gets slammed, will it be able to handle a crowd? I'm skeptical. That will be the kiss of death, and people will write me nasty letters about my positive review.

No crab cake on the menu: As a restaurateur once told me, you can't have a successful restaurant in downtown Baltimore without a crab cake on the menu.

Whether Brasserie 10 South succeeds or fails, its executive chef has found a showcase for his considerable talent. Keefer worked at both Ixia in Mount Vernon and Saute in Canton, but not when I was there. This is the first time I've eaten his food.

Don't be fooled by the misspellings on the menu. This guy can cook. His dishes are imaginative but not overly so. The plates are artistically arranged and prettily garnished with a sprig of Upland cress, perhaps, or a cheese tuille, or a bit of pickled ginger. Most important, the interplay of contrasting and sometimes startling flavors contributes to a harmonious whole.

Ask for bread and you might get hot little savory cream puffs filled with chervil butter. They melt in the mouth. Everything, our waiter assured us, is made in house. Those certainly were.

Keefer's take on tender short ribs adds Chinese five-spice powder (sparingly) to the traditional sauce, giving it an exotic air. Accompaniments aren't given short shrift: parsnips are poached in red wine, a roasted cipollini onion lounges to one side. Along with the crisp-skinned duck confit came a wonderful cabbage and fennel mix cooked in cream.

Grit-free mussels bathe in a cauliflower nage, a delicate white broth that contains the essence of the vegetable. It's so good you'll want to pick up the bowl and drink it.

Our complaints were minor. Pan-fried oysters were a little greasy, but they were so tender in their golden crust they melted away. A bed of Upland cress offered a green contrast, and a barbecue mayonnaise spiced things up a bit. The "risotto" of the day with mushrooms was so fine we could hardly complain that it was actually barley cooked risotto-style. (Our waiter warned us.)

A crab tian (really just a molded crab meat cocktail) isn't going to win over Baltimoreans to Peekytoe crab. The flavor is delicate, and there are no lumps. But it's a pretty dish, and the tart yuzu creme fraiche and pickled ginger root lend it an Asian flair.

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