You have dinner at Feast@4East for the same reasons you might stay at the bed and breakfast it's in. Some people like the impersonal comfort and anonymity of a hotel room when they travel. Some prefer the homeyness of a B&B.
Likewise, dinner at the 4 East Madison Inn feels more like dinner at someone's home than a restaurant meal. How that strikes you will determine how much you enjoy Feast.
Of course, most people's homes aren't a grand old Mount Vernon town house with etched glass panels, front and back parlors, high ceilings, tall windows and marble fireplaces. The dining room holds only 10 or so white-clothed tables, including a round table in the bay window, where we sat. The rest of the tables are two-tops, so there would be even fewer tables when they are pushed together for parties of three or four.
We ate at Feast@4East on a gloomy rainy night and were the only people in the dining room. At some places (like the last tapas bar I reviewed), that would be the kiss of death. Here, it wasn't. If you were eating in someone's home, there wouldn't be anyone else in the dining room. The waiter had the time to be pleasantly chatty. The service was good. And the food arrived just when it should have if it had been cooked to order.
I talked to owner/chef Sandy Lawler a few days later, and she told me business is usually brisker than it was that night, although it has its ups and downs. Good word of mouth has helped, as has keeping entree prices pretty much under $20. The customer base is fairly balanced between loyal neighborhood folks and diners from outside the immediate area. (She mentioned Pikesville and Guilford.)
The menu isn't complicated; you have the feeling Lawler just makes what she likes to cook. Many of the dishes have a French or Mediterranean accent. There is the nod to local, organic and sustainable foods; and Lawler says she was a vegan for many years, so she's comfortable with the cuisine. But you'll find red meat, chicken and seafood on the menu as well.
Back to my original point, that this doesn't feel like restaurant food. It's served on old-fashioned patterned china, and the food isn't "plated" or styled. It's just served. That means it isn't always as pretty as it could be. A very good Portuguese kale and potato soup looked like something I might heat up for myself when I was eating alone, with nothing done to make it more attractive.
The "holy trinity" Cajun shrimp, sauteed with onion, celery and bell peppers over rice, had a delicious balance of flavor and heat, but the kitchen wasn't going for artistic appeal.
I'm not complaining; just pointing it out. I don't usually think much about how different restaurant food looks from home cooking. And that wasn't true across the board. An excellently fresh wild rockfish fillet had a pretty drizzle of tarragon-mustard sauce and a contrasting bed of well-seasoned lentils.
Several dishes on the menu are vegan with the option of adding meat, like the pasta of the day with a butternut squash, sweet potato and sage sauce. Slices of bratwurst gave it a needed zip.
Serious meat eaters will be happier with the bistro steak. It comes in rare slices on a crisp-edged mushroom polenta with a wine-dark reduction.
The emphasis at Feast is on small plates or dinners, but there are a few appetizers. A savory tart with tender pastry had a satisfyingly seasonal pumpkin and squash filling. Even better was what the menu calls simply the charcuterie, that evening a smooth, understated pate made of chicken livers - although my friend was put off by the seal of fat on top of the little dish.
The waiter's favorite dish on the menu, he said, was a small plate, the vegan red beans and rice, which can be had with spicy boudin sausage. He brought it in a little bowl as an appetizer for me, and I'd have the full portion in a heartbeat for dinner next time.
The menu says Feast is BYOW, although I'm sure if you prefer to bring beer or liquor, the staff won't turn you away. There is a $5 corkage fee. The restaurant's fine French press coffee (organic and fair trade) is a good way to end your meal.
Homemade desserts like a seasonal pear tart or a flan will satisfy any sweet tooth that isn't craving chocolate. For that, I recommend the vegan chocolate sorbet.
Feast@4East is a quirky little place, and I wouldn't plan to eat there unless you like that kind of very personal restaurant experience. It might also be a very different experience if every table was filled, but my guess is that that doesn't usually happen.
feast@4east Address: 4 East Madison Inn, 4 E. Madison St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers: $6-$8, entrees: $16-$22.
Contact: 410-605-2020, 4eastmadisoninn.com.
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]