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Frank & Nic's: Near Oriole Park but miles above stadium food

First impressions can be misleading. Especially if your preconceived notions are misleading.

My preconceived notions of the new Frank & Nic's near Oriole Park at Camden Yards had to do with the talk I had with one of the owners, Frank Zafonte. Somehow Frank & Nic's sounded like a swanky lounge when he described it, with booths and granite-topped bars and a burgundy-and-gold color scheme. Zafonte mentioned the black-and-white photos of Baltimore, but he didn't mention the huge flat-screen TV that hangs over the main dining room. He didn't mention the rows of tables lined up like a cafeteria's, or the floor-to-ceiling windows. Until it gets dark, the rooms lose any sense of intimacy they might have had.

I didn't realize just how happy the happy hour at the bar would be, and how much the noise would reverberate through the dining room until the bar crowd moved on.

I wasn't expecting plastic laminated menus. And on the back of that menu, the wine list in its entirety - 32 bottles and 18 wines by the glass.

By the time we sat down and I started studying my menu, I was expecting a meal just a step above bar food.

Wrong.

There's some real artistry going on in the kitchen.

Yes, some of the foods I expected from my first impression are on the menu: cheeseburgers and entree salads, calamari and sliders. But there are also some fine Asian appetizers, like soft, very fresh pieces of seared tuna with a citrusy ponzu sauce, a drizzle of wasabi-sparked cream and fresh vegetarian spring rolls in tender rice paper that deserved to be an appetizer all by themselves.

Fat mussels in their shells swam in a spicy red curry-coconut milk sauce that was as good as any Thai soup. Only in a Thai restaurant you wouldn't get crisp ovals of buttery grilled baguette to dip in it.

Even something as potentially ordinary as the sliders was wonderful: three dainty hamburgers on little brioche rolls, the meat just pink, with melted cheddar, caramelized onions and chopped dill pickle.

Our main courses didn't quite reach the heights of our appetizers, but they were better than I expected when I first walked in the door. Frank & Nic's has several steaks, which our waiter told us were bought at the same place that Ruth's Chris buys its steaks. The price tag is lower though, presumably because the filet, at least, wasn't prime. Still, it was tender and had as much flavor as the cut ever has, and you get to choose from several sauces to complement it. (The brandy-peppercorn sauce was a success, discreet but with some zing to it.)

You can add a crab cake to your steak for $12, or you can order two fat ones on their own for $28. The balance between filler and lump meat is well maintained, and a bit of remoulade sauce is a welcome addition if you feel they need something more than lemon juice. They would have been just about perfect with less salt. I like the fact that the restaurant decided to tell us what they would cost on the menu, rather than say "market price."

Frank & Nic's fish of the day that evening was opa, a firm, mild Hawaiian fish. The kitchen tops it with a fresh pineapple salsa. I would have been even happier if the fillets hadn't been so thin, with crisscross grill marks on them. They were very fresh and not overcooked, though.

The kitchen takes four large scallops and wraps them in prosciutto, sears them and serves them with lemon butter. Our waiter told us it would be "almost half a pound" of scallops, although that must be the pre-cooking weight. Maybe the restaurant has been getting complaints, but four scallops are now the standard serving, just as four oysters Rockefeller seems to be.

Dinners come with one side, which makes Frank & Nic's a bargain compared to upscale steakhouses if you're comparing. And unlike some upscale steakhouses I've been to, attention is paid to those sides: an excellent mac and cheese made with orecchiette pasta, fresh green beans cooked with a little tomato, flavorful sauteed spinach. But unexpectedly, the potatoes gratin was too salty to eat. And who would have guessed a garlic-buttermilk dressing on a wedge of iceberg lettuce with thinly sliced red onions, diced tomatoes and crumbled bacon would be sweet? Ugh.

There is so much good food to be had here I wouldn't advise saving room for dessert unless you have a serious sweet tooth. The signature dessert is a West End Sundae, built around a deep-fried fun-sized Snickers bar. The other choices run along the same over-the-top lines: creme brulee enriched with chocolate ganache, for instance, and bread pudding made from banana bread with caramelized bananas, caramel sauce, ice cream and walnuts.

The service was almost excellent, but our waiter didn't know the difference between choice and prime steaks, or rather didn't know which the restaurant was serving. He got the manager, to his credit, but the manager told us only the filets weren't prime, because all prime filets go to Japan.

Really?

Also, our very nice waiter told us that if our after-dinner coffee didn't taste fresh enough he would brew another pot. Once being told that, of course, we couldn't help but want a fresher cup.

Still, those are minor complaints. In general, our meal was well paced, and our waiter was attentive.

I hope Frank & Nic's makes it. It deserves to. I don't know if this is the right menu with the right prices in this neighborhood. It seems tucked out of the way, but it was busy before baseball season started with a young bar crowd, folks from the nearby University of Maryland and (I presume) whoever is living upstairs in the Zenith "luxury" apartments. Whether those customers will be ordering the best of what the kitchen has to offer or just the bar food remains to be seen.

Frank & Nic's may not have the atmosphere of a special-occasion restaurant, but many of the dishes could hold their own with a much fancier restaurant.

frank & nic's west end grille Address: 511 W. Pratt St.

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $7-$14, entrees: $16-$33

Contact: 410-685-6800, frankandnics.net

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

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

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