With its cozy space, approachable wine list, and tasty Slavic dishes, Ze Mean Bean is heavy on character.
Where else can you nosh on 25-cent happy hour special pierogies while sipping a thoughtfully selected zinfandel, all while perched on a velvet sofa straight out of a pre-war drawing room?
Smack in the middle of a busy Fells Point block, Ze Mean Bean and its larger than life sign are hard to miss. With the proliferation of Mexican spots in the neighborhood these days, passers-by could be forgiven for guessing it's a burrito joint (the "bean" in the name is a holdover from its European-style coffeehouse beginnings).
Despite the name, Ze Mean Bean offers much more than coffee. The menu focuses on traditional Slavic dishes and modern food with an Eastern European edge, paired with wines from a thoughtful, globally-inspired wine list. And for the most part, it works.
Inside, the vibe hasn't changed much since the restaurant opened in 1995. The dark wood floors and slightly mismatched furniture are old but well-cared for, and the main floor is just big enough for a short bar and half a dozen tables. They've got the European coffeehouse look down pat.
Ze Mean Bean has evolved far past a coffeehouse, though. The bar was added in 2008, replacing a bakery case, as the restaurant shifted its focus from sweets to drinks. Around 7 on a recent Tuesday night, the downstairs dining room was nearly full with happy hour holdovers, a crowd ranging from artsy to sophisticated (a second dining room upstairs was empty).
One glance at the drinks menu makes it plain that Ze Mean Bean should be taken seriously as a wine and beer bar. We started with a refreshing Golden Pheasant pilsner ($6) and, because it came highly recommended, a Bedon cocktail ($7). The drink's combination of lemon, tonic, and the Czech bitters Becherovka would prove medicinal, the menu promised. While we can't say it cured us of any ailments, the mild, herbaceous flavor was a pleasant start to the meal.
Though the room started to empty after 20 minutes, the lone waitress, also serving as bartender, was friendly but distracted. We had to ask a twice for the beer, and there were a few other lapses. Chalk it up to the European vibe.
General Manager Scott Lanphear calls on his culinary school background to pull double-duty, taking creative responsibility for the kitchen while also running the front of the house. His menu features traditional Eastern European favorites, as well as some more modern dishes, offered with a slight Euro spin.
We started with the Slavic Sampler ($14), which showed off Ze Mean Bean's abilities with traditional fare. Slices of kielbasa were salty and hot and a potato pancake, dressed up with apple sauce and sour cream, was seasoned well and crispy in all the right places.
The holupki, a stuffed cabbage roll topped with a chunky tomato sauce, was full of flavor. But the pierogies, little pockets of potato, sauerkraut and cheese, made for the restaurant by friends steeped in the Polish tradition, stole the show with their balanced blend of creamy, savory potato and tart cabbage.
The entrees were more of a mixed bag. The Hungarian goulash ($18) was a fantastic marriage of tender beef, carrots, green peppers and potato dumplings in a smoky tomato sauce spiced with Hungarian paprika. We used every bit of the accompanying grilled wheat bread to sop up the thick broth.
The Arctic char ($24), however, was less successful. The fish looked lovely, if a little out of place — its artistic arrangement and modern white plate looked more high-end fusion restaurant than cozy ethnic spot. Unfortunately, the fish itself was overcooked, and the rosemary polenta with it was just too dense. Beets, served on the side, were earthy, warm and tender, but couldn't save the dish as a whole.
On a brighter note, the menu's recommended wine pairings for both dishes were spot-on. The Rosenblum Zinfandel ($7 per glass), a fruity, well-balanced red, picked up the goulash's tomato base without overpowering the dish's spice, while the Riff Pinot Grigio's ($8 per glass) clean acidity perked up the Arctic char.
Ze Mean Bean's desserts have less European flair than the rest of the menu, but get the job done. Apricot-almond bread pudding ($7), with large, chewy chunks of fruit tucked into sweet bread, offered a tasty, if standard, end to the meal.
The restaurant was nearly empty when we left, the pierogi-stuffed happy hour crowd having long dissipated and the smaller dinner crowd lingering only a short time over their meals and wine. Still, with its leisurely service and charming atmosphere, Ze Mean Bean delivers on its European promise.
Stick to the Slavic specialties, trust the wine recommendations and soak up the European character. Preferably with a slice of crusty bread, so you don't miss an ounce of rich Slavic sauce.
Ze Mean Bean
Back-story: Ze Mean Bean is a Fells Point mainstay with an Old World vibe and good Eastern European classics.
Signature dish: The pierogies, little pockets of potato, sauerkraut and cheese, stole the show with their balanced blend of creamy, savory potato and tart cabbage.
Parking: Street parking
Where: 1739 Fleet St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-675-5999, zemeanbean.com
Open: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-12 a.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]