Geckos: Ambience is super

the food, so-so

Geckos' uneven fare might be sign of a stressed kitchen

January 14, 2010|By Richard Gorelick | Special to The Baltimore Sun

Over on the Dining@Large blog, we talk often about the relative importance we put on atmosphere, food, and service. In a typical exchange, one commenter will insist that he'd sacrifice a little food quality for great ambience and service; another will swear the opposite. There's a wide range of opinion, and I suspect that happy marriages happen when there's a meeting of the minds on this issue.

Geckos, I think, is Exhibit A for the defenders of great atmosphere/good enough food. I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone who asked me about authentic or interesting Southwestern food in the area, but I'd suggest it right away to anyone looking for a fun evening in a real neighborhood place. Located in the northwest corner of Canton but well away from the bustle of the square, Geckos is one of the friendlier places around town - the kind of spot you might show up at a few times a week for years, sometimes for dinner but other times just to hang out or shoot a game of pool downstairs.

If I were a regular, I think I'd fall in and out with the food. On one hand, I'd appreciate the sincere effort that Geckos puts into its weekly specials and its menu, both the regular items and the specials. When we visited, the specials list included three soups, five salads and appetizers, two sandwiches, seven entrees and one dessert. That's a lot of work for a small kitchen - maybe too much - but that diligent attitude applies to the front of the house staff, who seem to thrive when the bar and dining room are full. On the other hand, I'd want to consistently like the food just a little more. I've had good luck here, but enough disappointments to make me just a little wary.

The guacamole had that metallic, just-on-the-verge taste - not bad yet, but not at its freshest either, and in need of some brightening citrus flavor. The soups we tried produced a similar effect. A turkey and white bean chili was a little dull (and more like a soup) and needed either more ground turkey or assertive seasoning - or both. There was something in the beef chili - the cheese maybe, or the sour cream - that wasn't doing it any favors. But then an appetizer of fried artichoke hearts, which you think would be tricky to pull off, was fantastic.

Still, through these so-so appetizers, we were having a good time, and so apparently was everyone else. It was taco night, featuring $10 taco platters and $3.50 margaritas, which are good here, and not expensive even at their regular price. One of us went with the taco special, which is a choice of chicken or beef with guacamole, sour cream, and rice and beans. It's a good deal, and the portions are generous. But because adjacent piles of seasoned beef and beans and rice look too much alike, the whole thing doesn't look very appetizing. It's more a meal to work through than really to savor.

There were much better results with a chile-crusted filet mignon in red-wine mushroom sauce, a smartly conceived and solidly prepared entrée. But another special, pork carnitas with braised cabbage, was very disappointing. The meat here was cubed instead of shredded, which might be a legitimate variation, but it just didn't work. That lovely caramelizing you get with shredded pork was not there, and the meat tasted oddly like chicken.

It really wasn't so dire, and we pushed the menu perhaps more than we should have. There's no way to tell for sure, but I think the kitchen might be overextending itself. Things don't feel rushed as much as in need of a finishing touch: another taste, a squeeze of lime. On the whole, I'd rather have fewer choices and more certain results, even when I'm guaranteed a good time.

On the menu
•Guacamole and chips - $5.25

•Turkey white bean chili - $3.50/$4

•Beef chili - $3.50/$5

•Fried artichoke hearts - $6

•Pork carnitas with braised cabbage - $12

•Chile-crusted filet mignon (a special) - $18

•Beef taco platter - $10

Where: 2318 Fleet St

Contact: 410-732-1961

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday, 3:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, and 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday

Appetizers: $1.75-$10.25

Entrees: $9.25-$16.25

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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

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