Of course, it's early days yet, but the new Tark's Grill seems to be making customers happy. The energy is certainly there. As we approached the entrance on a recent weeknight, the noise from the crowded bar was audible from across the courtyard. The restaurant's patio in the courtyard, by the way, now has a fireplace, which is lit even when it isn't warm enough to eat outdoors. Very nice.
Tark's is a good-looking, if somewhat impersonal, space, done in dark wood, with a red, black and white color scheme and light fixtures that give it a bit of an Asian feel. Colorized photos of old Baltimore line the walls.
The tables are close together, but not too close; white bistro paper covers the white tablecloths. I like the fact that the central table decoration is a large dark wood pepper grinder.
In general, this is simply a likable restaurant that is managing its early success pretty well. You have to want American bistro fare, which, OK, isn't exciting, but much of what the kitchen produces is first rate. That evening's seafood special, for instance, was rockfish stuffed with crab imperial. This was probably the best version of this classic I've ever tasted, with nice big lumps of crab, just enough mayonnaise, and beautifully cooked fresh fish. It will knock your socks off.
On a smaller scale, the black bean soup is quietly perfect, garnished only with sour cream. A cup is an appetizer, not a meal in itself, and that works for me. Tark's bruschetta starts with grilled ciabatta topped with a dice of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, with fresh basil thrown in for a little flavor jolt.
The southern-style fried oysters are a bit heavy on the batter for my taste, but they are seductive, and I ended up eating the large portion anyway (with a little help from my friends).
Lindsay's Chicago Chopped Salad, which is billed as a Tark's Grill Original, seems fairly close to a Chicago Chopped Salad - that is a huge heaping mound made with iceberg, tomato, blue cheese, cucumber, bacon and so on. With chopped onion and jalapeno, it has plenty of zing.
Having eaten at some very expensive restaurants lately, I found Tark's fairly reasonable - as long as you're not ordering crab cakes or steak. The house specialties try hard to stay under $20 (and don't quite succeed). These are American comfort food dishes, and include a chicken potpie with a puff pastry crust. It's served with a spoon because the well-seasoned gravy isn't overly thickened. While I loved it, the friend who ordered the dish was taken aback. My complaint was that it seemed a bit short on chicken.
Tark's Signature Grilled T-Bone is an impressive piece of meat, 20 ounces of it, but - disappointingly - it arrived medium rather than medium rare. Two side dishes come with dinners, which makes the cost seem even more moderate if you're used to a la carte steak houses. And I love the fact that there are lots of vegetable choices. Don't miss the creamed spinach, which is fresh spinach cooked lightly, not chopped, floating in a little cream. Lovely.
If I was so impressed with the kitchen except for a few minor glitches, how come I gave the food 2 1/2 stars? Quite simply, it was the enormous double cut pork chop, which had a faint, unpleasant taste. My friend didn't complain, but he left most of it. The waitress noticed and went to the general manager, Mark Hofmann, without being asked; he came to the table and said he would take it off the bill if my friend didn't want something else. That bumped the service up half a star.
Hofmann is the man responsible for the bistro wine list, which is well-priced and heavy on domestic wines. Like the menu, it has a good range of prices, with some unusual choices here and there. A more serious cellar list is in the works.
Desserts are pretty much what you'd expect, but done well. The restaurant draws on the work of a good bakery to produce enormous slabs of fresh carrot and chocolate cakes. The dessert I was most impressed with was billed as coconut pound cake, but was much lighter and moister than I expected. The key lime pie is also appealing, if you're in the staggeringly full state we were.
Tark's Grill seems to have hit on a winning formula. What's surprising, I suppose, is that it didn't happen before. After all, this is an area with money, but not enough good restaurants to spend it on. Now it has another one.