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Second Miss Shirley's open downtown

Every so often, a restaurant opens so successfully, is embraced so universally, that you can only figure that it's filling a deep, communal need. Miss Shirley's arrival in Roland Park a few years ago was such a case.

It seemed that more than almost anything, Baltimore desperately wanted an upscale and Southern-style breakfast- and lunch-only restaurant, one that maintained a homey and cheerful ambience while adding New American panache to traditional morning-time recipes. We're talking things like French toast stuffed with coconut cream, flaked coconut and bruleed bananas; eggs Benedict served on top of cakes made from shredded potatoes or sweet corn; and deviled eggs stuffed with jumbo lump crab meat.

It was such an instant hit that the original Miss Shirley's relocated across Cold Spring Lane to a larger space. Now, a second Miss Shirley's has opened downtown, on the first floor of the Constellation Energy Group's headquarters building, across the street from the National Aquarium in Baltimore. For now, the new restaurant is only open weekdays; weekend hours will begin in April.

But I just can't figure out this new Miss Shirley's at all. Not to say that the food isn't still good. It's great. I had one of the most exquisitely delicious breakfast plates I can ever remember - fried pieces of juicy chicken breast inside a crunchy, sesame-seed coating (they're called benne seeds here), served with savory cheddar and green onion waffles, with a mellow honey-mustard drizzle and red pepper-jalapeno butter. They were fabulous, and so were a side of sweet corn cakes, served with a gorgeous tomato-and-sweet-pepper relish.

A companion's challah French toast was pretty good, too, even without one of the suggested $3.50 toppings that can be chosen for it and Miss Shirley's other assorted griddle specialties - a chocolate toffee crunch with caramel creme; fresh strawberries and whipped cream; a pear-ginger almond compote; and lemon poppy seed with blackberries.

What made me so grouchy, then? I think it has to do with mixed messages, or how a restaurant sets expectations. There's a bit of a mismatch between some of the furnishings at Miss Shirley's and its expensive new shell. I felt the ambience was caught between contemporary and cozy, and ended up just impersonal, like a recently renovated hotel.

The menu that is such a pleasure to peruse on a leisurely weekend is a pain in the neck to have to wade through at a breakfast meeting, and what can be luxuriously indulgent in Roland Park feels fussy in the business district. (I tried but failed to coax my dining companion into trying one of those griddle toppings.) Prices are fair, considering the quality, but they're high, both at breakfast (when composed omelets start at $11.99) and at lunch (when a California BLT is $11.99 and a spinach salad is $12.99).

Unfortunately, the service was not an asset. When we visited, patrons were not greeted with warmth, and diners at their tables were not carefully watched over.

I wondered on my way to Miss Shirley's if there would be a counter, some place where a hungry businessperson could grab a good breakfast before the day started. A counter would have signaled to me that the downtown operation had a menu and a concept more in tune with weekday life. There's no counter. I think, for now, a weekday breakfast would make the most sense if you can expense it. Lunch might be worth a try.

The whole thing might all work better on a spring weekend, when there will be tables outside, just along the water. I'm pleased that there's a good locally owned restaurant down here at all, especially one focusing on regional cuisine.

miss shirley's Where: 750 E. Pratt St.

Call: 410-528-5373

Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday (weekend hours begin in April)

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, AMEX

Food: ***

Service: **

Ambience: **

Appetizers: $1.99-$6.99

Entrees: $7.99-$21.95

on the menu •Benne seed chicken 'n' waffles: $12.99

•Sweet corn cakes: $3.99

•Challah French toast: $7.99 (toppings, $3.50)

•Grilled breakfast kebab: $12.99

•Smoked salmon benedict: $16.99

The phone number for Miss Shirley's was listed incorrectly when this article was published in the print edition. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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