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Restaurant review: The Mallet livens up a downbeat Fallston corner

The building at the corner of Belair and Mountain Roads in Fallston has a reputation as one of those spots where no restaurant seems able to survive.

Tony Ashe, owner and general manager of the Mallet, the newest restaurant at the location, hopes to change all that with his combination fine dining/crab house/martini lounge/tiki bar establishment. In the dining room, tasty if traditional steak and seafood dishes and friendly service suggest the Mallet might be the restaurant that breaks through on this corner.

If the concept sounds as if it's trying to be all things to all people, it is. Ashe aims to create a destination for the residents of Bel Air and Harford County, whether they're looking for crabs with the kids, a nice meal or a night out for drinks and live music. Our visit, on a recent Tuesday night, focused on the dining room.

The biggest glitch that evening happened before we even made it to the restaurant. We called to make a reservation, left a message and never received a return call. Fortunately, when we arrived just before 7 p.m., there were tables available, despite a private party in the dining area's back room.

Ashe describes the concept as "fine dining," but that sounds fancier than the actual experience. Linen tablecloths and napkins were a nice touch, but the furnishings were simple and diners, ranging from young families to older couples, were not dressed up.

The soothing blue walls, decorated with paintings of Chesapeake Bay waterfowl and model ships, left no question as to what sort of restaurant the Mallet is. Here, you will find seafood.

Though the Mallet has several bars, we weren't given a wine list in the dining room. Fortunately, the wait staff knows the lineup. After a few questions about our preferences, our waiter recommended a very likable Simply Naked chardonnay ($6 for a glass).

The menu focuses on traditional, crowd-pleasing steak and seafood dishes. We started with the fried calamari ($8), a familiar dish and one the Mallet does well. The squid was lightly breaded and just briefly fried, so the end result was tender with just a little crunch. The calamari came with two sauces — a chunky red sauce that was tasty, if standard, and a tangy and an interesting lemon aioli.

After the calamari, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of greens in the house salad (salads come with all pasta dishes). Dressed with thick, slightly sweet house balsamic vinaigrette, the greens were fresh and crisp, combined with a handful of equally fresh tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers.

To develop the menu, train the kitchen staff and establish front-of-the-house standards, Ashe hired Davide Rossi and his wife, Christa Bruno-Rossi, the couple behind Pazza Luna, Locust Point's late, well-loved Italian spot. Now that the Mallet is up and running, the Rossis have stepped back into a consulting role. They check in a few times a month, but they are not involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurant.

The Rossis' influence is most noticeable in the pasta section of the menu ,and the frutti de mare ($21) sums up what the Mallet does best. A bed of linguine was topped by thick, house-made tomato sauce tasting of ripe tomato and basil, and a large helping of seafood, all of which was properly cooked. The mix included several scallops and shrimp, plus clams and mussels still in their shells. Each bite of seafood was appropriately seasoned and slightly garlicky, making for an impressive dish all around.

The 14-ounce Black Angus rib-eye ($26) was not the thickest steak we've eaten, but it was seasoned well with a savory house blend of herbs and cooked properly, right down to the neatly crisscrossed grill marks. A side of green beans, carrots and squash was cooked until just a bit of crispness remained and, like the steak, was nicely seasoned.

Desserts also run to the traditional. Key lime pie ($5) was tart and fluffy, with a touch of sweetness added by a drizzle of caramel. The molten chocolate lava cake ($5), a favorite of our waiter's, was dark and rich, and accompanied by a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, big enough to share.

Our waiter was friendly and mostly attentive, though service slowed a few times during the meal, and we waited for our check a little too long. But overall, the wait staff lived up to the standards set by the Rossis.

When we left, the dining room was winding down, but the adjacent bar was filling up. Does the Mallet have what it takes to "lift up its dormant corner," as Ashe says, and successfully deliver on its many concepts? If the dining room is any indication, it's off to a good start.

The Mallet

Back story: This restaurant, crab house and nightclub in Fallston serves traditional steak, seafood and pasta dishes. The couple behind Pazza Luna in Locust Point were tapped to develop the restaurant and are now consultants.

Parking: There is a lot in front of the restaurant.

Signature dish: The frutti de mare — a bed of linguine topped by thick, house-made tomato sauce and a large helping of seafood — sums up what the Mallet does best.

Where: 2403 Belair Road, Fallston

Contact: 410-877-2722,

Open: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit Cards: All major

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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