Restaurant is as curiously joyful as its AVAM home

Mr. Rain's Fun House proves to be a big tent with foods of many countries on the menu

  • At Mr. Rain's Fun House, owners Bill and Maria Buszinski, left, and Perez Klebhan hold plates of Bibb salad, left, prawns and pheasant and crab and mango tartar.
At Mr. Rain's Fun House, owners Bill and Maria Buszinski,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
December 13, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | elizabeth.large@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun food critic

What an odd name, my husband said when I told him we were going to Mr. Rain's Fun House for dinner. I imagine that's going to be a lot of people's reaction until they realize it's in the delightfully strange American Visionary Art Museum. Remember when we thought its predecessor, Joy America, had an odd name? After a while, it started to sound entirely normal.

Not to worry. The carnival aspects at Mr. Rain's Fun House turn out to be simply a few flourishes. The distorting fun-house mirrors were already in place near the bathrooms, and the new tenants have added a piece of carousel art in the dining room, peacock feathers for decoration on each table and some sparkly animal head sculptures on one wall. Your check will come attached to a flattened popcorn box. Oh, yes, and one of the desserts is cotton-candy baked Alaska. Other than that, dinner is a quite adult experience, with good-looking, minimalist decor, candlelight and appealing music.

Mr. Rain's Fun House is the creation of Bill and Maria Buszinski, formerly of the Sputnik Cafe in Crownsville, and their partner, Perez Klebhan. If you're familiar with the now-closed Sputnik, you know that Bill does the cooking.

Joy America always seemed a little more expensive than you might expect, given the concept of the museum that housed it. Mr. Rain's is more affordable, with a number of entrees under $20. Appetizers are really small plates, and priced accordingly. The food is aggressively eclectic, with unexpected ingredients showing up such as galangal (a root something like ginger popular in Asian cuisines), black rice and preserved lemons.

The current menu has influences from Africa, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Korea, to name a few. But American comfort food is at its heart - or maybe it's just because I'm from the South that grits and black-eyed peas seem like American comfort food. There's a nod or two to the current farm-to-table trend (the pork chop is from Frederick County), but it isn't the main focus of the restaurant. (See the Tasmanian salmon.)

The purple yam soup is a must-have from the current menu. The smooth puree, with its swirl of cream on top, has just enough of the exotic about it to intrigue, while each spoonful encourages you to try one more. Suddenly the bowl is empty.

I'd put the panko-crusted fried oysters in the same category. Once you get past the crisp gold exterior, the oysters melt away on your tongue. Try the New Orleans-style remoulade that goes with them and you'll never be satisfied with cocktail sauce again.

I wasn't quite so bowled over by the lumpia, the Filipino version of spring rolls; but they were fat with chicken and shrimp, and the crisp wrapper was relatively grease-free.

Whew. In the crab and mango tartare, it's the fresh mango and red onion, not the fat lumps of crab, that are raw. A bit of horseradish in the vinaigrette adds zip. It's reminiscent of ceviche, but less onion would let the crab and mango flavors come through.

The list of entrees is short, and two of them are vegetarian. In one of them, black-eyed pea cakes, which have plenty of fiery flavor, are partnered with kale, mashed rutabaga and a sour-sweet chowchow. A lot is going on on the plate, all of it good. Visually, though, the presentation is a little dark.

The poetically named "Prawns & Pheasant" pairs slightly charred shrimp with fabulous pheasant sausage. They are placed on a bed of kale nestled in grits. As a grits purist, I minded that these weren't as creamy as they should be, even with the addition of Manchego cheese, but I liked everything else about the dish.

Tangerine duck featured sliced duck that was well done, which I minded but someone else might not. It came with tangerine sections and tamarind chili. The sliced golden beets added a visual and flavor sparkle to the plate.

The special that evening was Victoria perch. (Kudos to the Buszinskis for pricing it well below most of the regular entrees instead of well above.) The fish was fresh and well-prepared, and I enjoyed the tempura-battered acorn squash and asparagus. But my guest wouldn't have ordered it if she had known the dish would involve so much fried food.

Instead of bread, by the way, the Fun House serves small, warm soft pretzels made in-house, with good mustard for dipping. They were great, and I usually don't like bread substitutes.

Desserts are made in-house. We had variations on a chocolate ganache cake and a carrot cake that were quite good, but if you can only order one dessert, make it the pumpkin cheesecake. It's small, surprisingly light, intensely pumpkin-y and a winner all around.

However, the dessert that will make you sit up and take note (not that I recommend it except for its novelty value) is the cotton-candy baked Alaska. It's made with cotton-candy ice cream and meringue, of course, but the coup de grace is the swirl of real cotton candy on top. Apparently the founder and director of the museum, Rebecca Hoffberger, presented the Buszinskis with a cotton-candy machine when she heard about the dessert.

Now that's what I call fun.

Mr. Rain's Fun House
Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

Contact: 443-524-7379, MrRainsFunHouse.com

Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$12; entrees, $14-$25

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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