Bicycle: the budget edition.
At least that's the assignment I gave myself and my guests as we headed to the Federal Hill bistro, which has long been a favorite place for Baltimoreans for a nice dinner out, but not exactly a cheap date.
In early January the owners - chef Nicholas Batey, his wife and his parents - closed the restaurant for a few days to make some cosmetic changes. They reopened with a new menu and wine list designed to attract more everyday business.
I wanted to see if the Bicycle was now the kind of place you could drop by after work and have a reasonably priced dinner. And I was curious if it had started attracting the neighborhood people who couldn't afford it before except for a special occasion.
We would order a bottle of wine from the "18 for $18" list, and try to keep our first courses under $10 and our entrees under $20. Admittedly this isn't exactly budget eating, but considering that three years ago when I reviewed the Bicycle, entree prices ranged from $21 to $32, it would be a significant change.
It was a frigid weeknight not long after Restaurant Week and Valentine's Day, so I was surprised to see the front room pretty much filled. This was the first time I've been seated there, and I liked it a lot. The room itself is cozy and bistro-ish (read not much fabric and tables close together), but it feels very adult. A handsome bar runs along the back wall. Even though the restaurant has a young vibe and there was one large party in the center of the small room, it wasn't terribly noisy. How do they manage that?
I'm pretty sure it was Batey's wife, Saundra, who was serving as our hostess/sometimes waitress that night. Her warmth reminded me once again of the pleasure you get when you eat at a well-run family-run restaurant.
These days, menus can be redone so easily that I don't usually give the prices of individual dishes in my reviews; but for the purposes of this exercise, I will. Don't hold me to them - I'm sure they can change without notice.
One of us decided to go the small plate route, and started with the caramelized Onion Naan Pizza ($12). Two, or even three, could happily share this as an appetizer. The arugula and sliced plum tomatoes add a fresh note to the caramelized onions and goat cheese. The one who ordered the pizza paired it with a house specialty, the pan-fried oyster salad ($12). The slippery sweet treats inside their gold crust lay on a bed of mixed greens with a fiery vinaigrette and a drizzle of aioli.
Ullswater, Bicycle's sister restaurant, is supposed to open nearby next month. It will be Italian, and Batey doesn't want to compete with himself, so there are few Italian dishes on this global bistro menu. One is highlighted: the "Taste of Ullswater Appetizer," a fried eggplant napoleon ($8). It's good but pretty much what you'd expect except for the spoonful of tapenade, which jazzed up the fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and eggplant.
Sometimes chef Batey starts with a somewhat pedestrian ingredient, like fried calamari ($9), and it's what comes with it that makes the dish - in this case, roasted peppers, capers and arugula. Its Thai chili vinaigrette adds fire. In fact, many of the dishes at Bicycle are spicy, but not violently so. The only one I would tone down a bit is the spicy corn soup with blue crab ($6). If it were just a little less fiery, the flavors of corn, crab, cream and cilantro would come through more clearly.
Among the entrees, the brisket, salmon and two vegetarian dishes all are priced under $20, but the problem is that the ones that cost just a little more sound so alluring.
Beautifully cooked, fat shrimp ($20) share space with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and capers over linguine, set off superbly with a lemon and white wine sauce.
Bicycle's Meat Trio ($22) lets you try the brisket, the shredded Yucatan-style pork and the hot and sweet Mongolian barbecue short ribs. (The tender ribs win hands down.) Each can be ordered separately. The trio comes on a bed of mashed potatoes with a few fresh mixed vegetables.
But the most spectacular of our entrees was also the least expensive. The elaborate Vegetarian Nirvana ($17) is a complicated dance of flavors, including black rice, grilled plantains, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, pineapple, chiles, coconut, curry, and I'm not sure what else. They play well together, though.
None of this is exactly budget fare, but you can now eat at the Bicycle much more affordably than before - with the same quality ingredients and intriguing combinations.
Now for the bad news. It's almost impossible to resist the desserts, and at $7 apiece they will run up your bill. There is, for instance, a bread pudding that is somehow related to bananas Foster, served with homemade banana-nut ice cream. There is a fresh mousselike chocolate mocha cake. There is, most seductively, a strawberry cheesecake. All homemade, all budget-busters. Not to mention the $3.95 French press coffee or the $3.50 tea.
Still, if you stick to the essentials - a couple of small plates or an entree salad, of which there are four, or one of the entrees under $20 - and accompany it with a $6 or $7 glass of wine or share one of the 18 for $18 bottles, it's possible to have an everyday meal at Bicycle. And that's a good thing, because chef Batey's food is anything but everyday.
bicycle Address: 1444 Light St., Federal Hill
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$13; entrees, $15-$23.
Contact: 410-234-1900, bicyclebistro.com
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]
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