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Dining for $25 or less: Annabel Lee Tavern

By Karen Nitkin

Special to The Sun

April 3, 2008

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The Annabel Lee Tavern in Highlandtown is designed as a whimsical shrine to Edgar Allan Poe and, by extension, a shout-out to Baltimore itself. Inside the narrow rowhouse, a candle flickers next to a drawing of the famed poet, and lines of his romantic, melancholy poetry are scrawled across the walls in large, looping letters.

But don't get the wrong idea. This corner tavern is not some gimmicky cobwebs-and-candles ode to Baltimore's favorite dead poet. Owner Kurt Bragunier was most recently manager at Brewer's Art, and he has brought a similarly high level of style and inventiveness to this much smaller space.

We're talking sliders made with Kobe beef, shrimp stuffed with giant marbles of snow-white crab, and a dessert "pate" made with three kinds of chocolate.

We knew we were in good hands as soon as we placed our drink order. Bragunier's Brewer's Art legacy includes an affection for craft beers, and our waitress, when asked, spoke with impressive insight about the difference between two local beers that are offered on tap - Raven and Resurrection.

Their Poe-aligned names certainly helped these beers get on the menu, but I have no doubt they would have been rejected if they were less than excellent. Standards are high at Annabel Lee, thanks in large part to the chef, Mark Littleton, most recently of Lulu's Off Broadway, who strives to make each dish special.

Even a simple spinach salad ($9.50) is almost a work of art, the bright greens topped with hot-pink swirls of salmon and dotted with quarters of hard-boiled egg. Bruschetta ($7.50) took the basic bread-and-topping formula to a higher level by starting with beautifully crisp, thin-sliced toast and topping it with creamy mozzarella cheese and basil.

An appetizer of tuna au poivre ($8.50) featured barely seared slices of tuna with melting pink interiors and a flavorful pepper crust.

Most of the entrees at Annabel Lee are classified as "small plates," but our waitress discouraged us from ordering more than one per person, correctly noting that they are large enough to satisfy most appetites.

In fact, given the richness of most of the food, the portions were exactly the right size. Two Kobe sliders, offered as a special during our visit, were about half the size of regular burgers. Each was topped with pulled pork and gorgonzola ($12.95), and they were crowded onto a plate alongside a generous handful of crisp and spicy sweet potato fries. The meat was tender, the bun lightly toasted and the cheese densely flavorful. What a treat.

Another excellent special, stuffed shrimp ($15.95) featured two large butterflied shrimp, each topped with crab and resting on a bed of gently sweet carbonara risotto. Two orange roughy tacos ($9.75) boasted super-fresh fish and a house-made pico de gallo.

One advantage of the restrained portions is we still had room for dessert, which included the dense chocolate pate, topped with whipped cream and swirled with a raspberry sauce, as well as a plate of ice cream nestled alongside a crunchy cookie and brownie.

My only complaint with Annabel Lee is that the space is too small. Reservations are not taken (though you can get on a waiting list by calling ahead) so getting a table can be a gamble. An empty upstairs room offers expansion possibilities, but in the meantime, arriving early or late might be a good idea.

Like many Poe poems, "Annabel Lee," written in 1849, deals with death - in this case, the death of a beautiful woman. In the poem, Annabel Lee is gone but not forgotten. "The stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes of the beautiful Annabel Lee," Poe wrote.

Like Annabel Lee herself, the restaurant named in her honor is worth remembering.