Transforming Miss Irene's

EATS

Ambitious changes pay off for mellower, fancier Fells Point restaurant

March 26, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

You may member Miss Irene's as a singularly louche Fells Point dive bar. It closed a few years ago and was bought and renovated by the chef and management team from the Waterfront Hotel, just down the block. In part because of the mare's nest of pipes and tubes under the cobblestones of Fells Point, this renovation took a long, long time. (Disclosure: At one early point, I was following the renovations at Miss Irene's with the intention of writing about the million little things that go into opening a restaurant.)

You'd never recognize the place now. For starters, Miss Irene's is twice as wide and twice as tall as it used to be; the renovation annexed both an adjoining rowhouse and the never-used upper floors. It's now a terrific-looking urban tavern, all gleaming wood and tungsten lighting in the handsome downstairs bar, with just enough nautical art and effects thrown in to anchor it in Fells Point.

Upstairs is a plummy lounge, the perfect size for a birthday gathering, and a building-length, timbered-ceiling dining room. Dressed up with white tablecloths and fresh flowers, the dining room manages, mostly, to shake off that lonesome upstairs feeling, and I think it's because the room is so wide that it feels a little like a conventioneers' destination. Nice as it is, I think most visitors will want to stay downstairs at or around the bar, or in the smaller, and cozier, downstairs dining room.

The menu is kind of fancy, definitely a notch or several above the neighboring Fells Point establishments in its ambition and designs. Miss Irene's Web site identifies its cuisine as French- and Italian-inspired, and the menu is dotted with rich and sharp ingredients like chevre, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, anchovy paste, arugula and truffle oil. Most everything on the menu sounds interesting, even the hamburger grilled Wagyu beef with thin sauteed potato, gherkin relish and raclette.

The only thing missing right now from the cuisine is an intangible, but I'd describe it as a purpose. I think Miss Irene's could benefit from something as simple, and obvious, as an owner's welcome note incorporated into the menu, just something to give diners a foothold, and, maybe, a rooting interest in the food.

Some of the food needs it, and I think some of the dishes would have gone over better with a little introduction. Maybe the white-truffle macaroni, served prissily with Parmesan-dressed greens, is meant to convey some European reserve, but almost everyone will be expecting something served hotter, cheesier and crustier. A confit of duck tossed with homemade pappardelle and chevre could use some Americanization too, and by that, I mean a whole lot more duck. The same with the onion soup, one of those restaurant items where the bloated version turns out to be preferable. Miss Irene's take on it, a dark and strong broth topped delicately with a baguette and cheese, is maybe a truer onion soup - it might even be a better onion soup - but most people will want to supersize it.

The skills, both up front and in the kitchen, are all in place. Most of what we saw and tasted was tantalizingly close to satisfying. A mushroom panini with pesto and chevre would have been delightful if there had been more pesto (and some sea salt on the mushrooms). A roast beef sandwich just needed more horseradish, and because it's served au jus, could really lose the lettuce and tomato. A saffron risotto with salmon, mussels and shrimp in bisque sauce was simple and just about perfect.

There are other things on the menu I'm eager to try, such as a pan-seared rockfish over pasta Livornaise (that'd be the anchovy paste), and a grilled New York strip with Stilton butter. I like that Miss Irene's has a pate du jour in addition to its charcuterie and cheese platters. I'm impressed, too, that its kitchen is serving food late (a small plate menu was recently added) and early (brunch seven days a week). I believe Miss Irene's is already succeeding as a mellower alternative in Fells Point. I expect it to hit its stride very soon.

miss irene's

Where: : 1738 Thames St.

Call: : 410-558-0033

Credit cards: : MasterCard, VISA, AMEX

Open:: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday-Sunday

Appetizers: : $8-$14

Entrees: : $15-$26

Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service:: *** 3 stars

Ambience: : *** 3 stars

on the menu

* Oysters mignonette: $8/$15

* Red curry mussels with coconut milk: $13

* Cheese board: $14

* Arugula, prosciutto and Reggiano with lemon and olive oil: $10

* Charcuterie: $13

* Saffron risotto, salmon, mussels, and shrimp in bisque sauce: $26

* White-truffle macaroni with cheese and fresh greens: $16

* Roast beef with fresh horseradish and Gruyere on baguette: $11

* Market mushroom panini with pesto and chevre: $10

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