Pull on your velvet jeans and let's head for Red Maple.
Baltimore's foodie community is abuzz about the fact that Jill Snyder, its executive chef, is a contestant on the fifth season of Bravo's reality show Top Chef, which will kick off on Nov. 12.
When I last ate at this ultra-chic Mount Vernon lounge not long after it opened almost seven years ago, Snyder was not yet heading the kitchen. (She took over in 2005.) It's time, it seems to me, for a return visit.
It turns out that besides the executive chef, things have changed remarkably little at Red Maple. A fork is offered as well as chopsticks these days. The food has more global influences. But that's about it. My guess is that the owners found a winning formula and have stuck with it.
Keep in mind that Red Maple is primarily a tapas lounge and - later in the evening - a high-end club, not a restaurant. That way you won't be expecting a dining room. It's coolly minimalist, dark - with most of the light coming from low, flickering candles - and uncomfortable if you like to eat off a table higher than your knees.
In other words, if you approach Red Maple as a place for a drink and nibbles, you'll enjoy yourself more.
It's one of the best-looking contemporary spaces in Baltimore. When you arrive at the front door, the only sign that you're at the right place is a small stylized logo of a red maple. The entrance opens up to a lounge with two fireplaces and angular seating. Up a few steps is the main bar area, where diners are seated at a banquette that runs along one wall with low tables. If you're sitting on the opposite side of the tables, you're basically sitting on ottomans. There are two other levels, and a courtyard with a red maple tree growing in back.
At Red Maple, you order a mango mojito or an espresso martini and a few small plates, which you eat with chopsticks. You enjoy the great sound system. Food isn't the raison d'etre. But what makes the place worth a restaurant review is that the food is good - so good it stacks up favorably against many more serious restaurants.
One thing I don't remember from my last visit: I'm surprised at how limited the wine list is, particularly at how few wines by the glass are offered. Instead, there are specialty cocktails, upscale beers, sake and bottle service. This last is where you order a bottle of premium liquor for the table at a significant markup and get mixers, ice and fruit to go with it. You're also, of course, paying for the cool factor.
It is possible to have dinner, as opposed to tapas, at Red Maple - something else I don't remember from last time. The menu has two "shared starters" that don't quite have the elevated status of the rest of the food: edamame hummus with chips and a crab dip - a jazzed-up red curry version. You could start with one of those and follow it with one of the two small plates - steak or lamb - that also come in a dinner-size portion with sides (and prices to match).
Still, do you want to eat dinner on your knees? Better that you share some of the tapas as a snack with your drinks, snagging a morsel of one dish with your chopsticks and then a bite from another.
One of those dishes should be Red Maple's take on fish and chips, which features seared ahi tuna with caper remoulade on crisp, salty, homemade potato chips. The chips are a perfect foil for the soft, fresh tuna.
The dishes aren't all Asian-accented - items like wild mushroom falafel and grilled feta cheese show up here and there. And a fork is provided in case you're chopstick-challenged.
The kitchen combines ingredients that could fight together on the plate but turn out to more than get along. Case in point, the orange curry duck samosas with a yogurt sauce and pear chutney. Scallops stuffed with figs and pancetta in a buttery sauce studded with pistachios are also a winner. We love the dumplings, filled with butternut squash and bathed in a creamy sauce sparked with sage, almost as much.
But occasionally, something that sounds great just isn't. Pumpkin fries with an onion-yogurt sauce keep reminding me how much better sweet potato fries are. And lamb braised with calypso beans has plenty of flavor and a bit of fire, but its pomegranate sauce is too sweet - sweet enough to be a dessert sauce. The fat pieces of rare tenderloin with Gorgonzola, tomatoes and a faintly sweet-sour reduction are a much better meat choice.
Before Snyder became Red Maple's executive chef, she was its pastry chef. The puff of a chocolate cake, which tastes just baked, is as fabulous as you might expect. Surprisingly, though, that's the only pastry offered. The other choices are coffee gelato and a mixed berry sorbet.
I would recommend Red Maple as a place to stop in for coffee and dessert, except there's so little in the way of dessert and no coffee. You would think that would be a natural for a place open late, but no.
I would not recommend Red Maple if comfortable chairs with backs and dining-room-height tables are more important to you than a handsomely designed space, even if the food is worth a visit. But one thing you shouldn't worry about at Red Maple: Even if you aren't 20-something and impossibly hip, the black-clad wait staff will be welcoming and attentive there. I've been waited on by servers at chain restaurants with more attitude.
red maple Address: 930 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly.
Prices: Small plates: $6-$10.
Contact: 410-547-0149, 930redmaple.com.
Atmosphere: *** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]