A user's guide to Restaurant Week

Check out these notable offerings at this summer's event

August 12, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, Special to The Baltimore Sun

More than 100 restaurants are participating in Baltimore Summer Restaurant Week 2010, which begins Friday and runs through Aug. 22, but only one of them has steamed crabs on the menu.

Coordinated by Visit Baltimore and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the promotion has broad appeal. "Restaurant Week brings frequent diners into restaurants during a typically slow period, and it's also a way for the occasional diner to get introduced to new places," says Nancy Hinds, Visit Baltimore's vice president of public affairs.

The best place to destination-shop remains the promotion's website, baltimorerestaurantweek.org, where the participating restaurants are invited to post their fixed-price menus for dinner ($35.10) and lunch ($20.10). Although, according to Hinds, there are no official rules concerning the length or wording of posted menus (other than offering a menu at the fixed price), surprisingly few restaurants are using this opportunity to promote themselves.

Some do, though, and they stand out. The front-runner in this category continues to be Aldo's, which includes suggested cocktails and wine pairings in its listing.

So start clicking. You'll get a good idea at least of which restaurants are at taking Restaurant Week seriously. And you'll find those steamed crabs about a third of the way down the page, at Jimmy's Famous Seafood.

Here are 10 trends in this summer's restaurant week offerings that got my attention:

Keeping their signatures High-end restaurants will often trim portions on their signature dishes to accommodate the $35 fixed price. Kali's Court (1606 Thames St., 410-276-4700) instead is keeping intact the portions of its crab cake and grilled filet mignon, but adding a $5 surcharge for these two items. Sotto Sopra (405 N. Charles St., 410-625-0534) is adding $7 for the Delmonico di Mano, an espresso-rubbed Delmonico rib eye with potato lasagna, broccolini and barolo reduction.

Worth its price Midpriced restaurants, on the other hand, have the problem of giving customers a $35 value. The enterprising Don't Know Tavern in Riverside (1453 Light St., 410-539-0231) is supplementing its menu with "a complimentary glass of wine, beer, or cocktail and a $10 coupon for a future visit." And the Mountain Branch Grille & Pub in Joppa (1827 Mountain Road., 410-836-9600) has slashed its fixed price to $19.95.

Sweet endings Dessert offerings often come across as perfunctory — a slice of cheesecake, some creme brulee. It's nice to see some effort here, or at least some pride. The Black Olive (814 S. Bond St., 410-276-7141) makes its Rein de Saba sound so good: "flourless chocolate cake made with Belgian chocolate, roasted ground hazelnuts and a rich ganache frosting, lush beyond belief."

Breaking the pattern Some diners complain about having to have a dessert course at all, but it feels as if fewer restaurants are breaking the appetizer-entree-dessert pattern. Bluegrass Tavern is one of the few to try. No dessert there. The three courses this year at the Bluegrass Tavern (1500 S. Hanover St., 410-244-501) are First Bites (appetizers), Second Bites (soups and salads) and Third Bites (entrees). Although they're not included in the fixed price, cheese and side-dish options are listed, too.

The tapas approach Small-plate restaurants have a tough time getting noticed, too. A few are pulling out all the stops, though. La Tasca in the Inner Harbor (201 E. Pratt St., 410-209-2563) is essentially making its whole menu available for the $35.10 fixed price, and Mezze in Fells Point (1606 Thames St., 410-563-7300) is including more than 20 items its small-plate feast.

Restaurant as curator Others are taking what I'd call a more curatorial l approach, paring down the choices to create a more focused experience. Pazo (1425 Aliceanna St., 410-534-7296) has created a menu that offers diners a second course of four plates chosen from a well-considered group of 20, which themselves are broken down into "Land," Sea," Field" and "Cold" categories.

To the point Because their price point hovers around $35 for a three-course meal, bistros can fall between the cracks of Restaurant Week. Last year, Meli American Bistro in Fells Point (1636 Thames St., 410-534-6354) started the trend of simply offering its whole menu, and Donna's of Cross Keys (5100 Falls Road, 410-532-7611) has now added a witty "less is more" twist to this approach. Here is Donna's menu in its entirety: First course: Pick any appetizer; second course: Pick any entree; third course: Pick any dessert.

For the younger set The most overlooked dining population during Restaurant Week? That's easy: It's children. The only place to think about them this year is the Lebanese Taverna in Harbor East (719 S. President St., 410-244-5533), which is offering children 11 years and younger a two-course (entree and dessert) menu. No matter how old they are, that's the price.

Veggie options Vegetarians typically migrate to small-plate restaurants or reliable Indian and Japanese restaurants for Restaurant Week. But a scattering of Italian restaurants have come up with vegetarian entrees. Sotto Sopra (405 N. Charles St., 410-625-0534) has a great selection, including a fried polenta appetizer with sea salt and truffle oil and a stracetti pasta entree with wild mushroom sauce.

Don't forget the crabs If you're jonesing for that Maryland favorite, steamed crabs, only Jimmy's Famous Seafood (6526 Holabird Ave., 410-633-4040) has them on the Restaurant Week menu. A half-dozen are available as one of the choices for second course at dinner.

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