Lean Times, Rich Dishes

Despite A Spate Of Closings, Restaurants Are Striking Back With Creative Offerings

The Restaurant Issue

November 18, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

If dining out has a season, it would be around the holidays. If there's a time when Baltimoreans will be saying, to heck with the recession, let's have an office lunch, get together with old friends at a nice restaurant or celebrate by dining out, it will be between now and Jan. 1.

If you only consider the number of closings - and there have been a lot of them - it hasn't been a good year for area restaurants. But it hasn't all been bad news.

Looking back over the restaurants I reviewed this year, I'm struck by how many of them were newly opened - in spite of the recession. Restaurateurs must be the most optimistic breed ever. Before I checked, I would have said that many new places were either steakhouses or southern Italian places because those are the safe, comfortable restaurants to be opening these days. But that wasn't true.

I started the year with a review of the new Abbey Burger Bistro in Federal Hill, and along the way enjoyed eating duck confit with cabbage and fennel cooked in cream at Brasserie 10 South downtown (already closed, unfortunately), fabulous fried oysters with a barbecue sauce made in house at Restaurant Sabor in Lutherville, baby eggplants stuffed with Gorgonzola, peppers and chestnuts at Taverna Corvino in Federal Hill, a juicy New York strip at Sullivan's Steakhouse downtown, mussels in a red curry-coconut milk sauce at Frank & Nic's West End Grille near the stadiums, a dreamy risotto studded with porcini mushrooms at La Famiglia near Johns Hopkins University and excellent seafood and tropical fruit ceviche at Talara in Harbor East. And those were just the highlights of the first half of the year, and only so far as new places were concerned.

It was a good year for me personally as a restaurant critic because I reviewed not one but two restaurants that had four-star food. And the year's not over yet. (In the past I've sometimes gone several years without having a four-star.)

One was an old standby, the Prime Rib, where I've eaten before but never had such a fine experience as I did this time. I'm guessing folks will be willing to pay a lot for a traditional steak dinner if it's done this well, even in a recession.

The other just-about-perfect dinner was created by chef Christian deLutis at Alizee in the Inn at the Colonnade. The food is American, but with a pronounced French accent. The service was a bit iffy when I was there, though, so take that into consideration when you plan your holiday party.

Most of these new restaurants are paying at least lip service to what I think of as the Phrase of the Year: farm-to-table. It took over from 2008's "locavore." The two ideas are much the same, promising food that is local, seasonal and fresh; but "farm-to-table" feels more comforting, cozier and less high-falutin' - all traits we seem to need in our restaurants these days.

I realized this trend was here to stay when I got a press release recently from the Radisson Cross Keys Hotel that its nice little restaurant, the Crossroads, was announcing - ta da! - a new "farm-to-table" menu.

But the Trend of the Year has to be deals. Restaurant consultants can say that today's consumers are looking for value and not deals, but it seems to me they are looking for value and deals. And deals they got in 2009. I started running a regular feature this year in my Table Talk column called Deal of the Week, and I have never had trouble finding one.

It seems as if every restaurant is offering a half-price bottle of wine night or a pasta for $10 night or some sort of special to lure customers in during the week. If you're willing to sit in the bar and don't want a full meal, you can get some excellent deals on food. There's also been an upswing in free-food offerings at happy hour to get people in who will spend money on drinks.

Some restaurants tried to change with the times beyond just offering a good deal. Last year Jerry Pellegrino's Corks in Federal Hill reinvented itself successfully as a more casual, fun (and less expensive) place to eat; Bicycle tried the same thing this year and failed. Although it closed, the owners have just opened their new casual Italian/New American restaurant, Ullswater, in south Baltimore.

(By the way, if you're a Jerry Pellegrino fan, you can now find him at Abacrombie near the Meyerhoff, where he's taken over from chef Jesse Sandlin.)

I don't want to suggest that customers are only looking for great deals when they go out to eat. Restaurant owners who can show that they offer a fabulous dining experience can still practically write their own ticket.

The hardest table to get recently has been at Volt in Frederick, where diners can expect to pay $75 or so a person. This is the high-end restaurant whose chef/owner, Bryan Voltaggio, has become a star on the Bravo reality show "Top Chef." Baltimoreans seem happy to travel for an hour, and hand over their credit cards, for an ultimate, if expensive, dining experience.

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