The past is always with us in Baltimore.
A native of this town once told me a sure sign that you are a local is when you give directions using landmarks of restaurants that used to be there. As in, "drive down Eastern Avenue until you go past where Haussner's used to be."
That said, CR Lounge still looks like Ixia. Those lofty ceilings, dark-blue walls and gold-leaf columns dominate the decor. And when you are sitting at a table a little beyond the bar you think, 'Isn't this spot where they used to sell magazines when this place was Louie's Cafe and Bookstore?'
CR Lounge is the new Ixia, which took over from Louie's in 2001 and closed in June 2009. While the architecture of CR Lounge at 518 N. Charles St. evokes memories of meals gone by, the cuisine of the new restaurant is soothing and distinctive.
An appetizer of wild mushrooms with Manchego cheese and truffle oil ($8) arrives on a striking rectangular plate. The earthiness of the mushrooms blends with the nutty cheese, and after a blissful forkful you know you are not in Louie's anymore.
So too with the shrimp risotto appetizer ($6). The rich flavors of the perfectly cooked shrimp, tender rice and dabs of fresh tomato soar. The only possible fault you could find with this dish is that the portion size is so generous, the flavors so filling, you might not have room for entrees. Somehow, you do.
Again the food arrives looking like a work of art, just as it did at Ixia, elegantly arranged on white plates. Eye-catching boneless beef short ribs ($19), pared with servings of sauteed spinach and sweet potatoes au gratin are brown and inviting. Moreover, the dish's flavors please. The beef is fork-tender yet still moist, the spinach fresh, and the sweet potatoes warm and consoling.
Proprietor Tegist Ayalew also operates a restaurant in Washington called Creme and pronounced like cream. By no coincidence, cream is a prominent ingredient in the shrimp and grits ($17). There are shallots, andouille sausage, a dab of sherry and shrimp in this dish, but the particulars that send you swooning are the grits and the cream. This is comfort food with a capital C.
The desserts are outstanding. The Not Your Momma Banana Pudding ($6), served in a martini-style glass, skillfully blends pudding bananas — and yes, even vanilla wafers — into a luscious dessert.
The world is divided between coconut lovers and coconut haters. The lovers would prize this coconut cake ($7), a rich yellow cake flavored with liquor — but not enough to overpower the winning component: fresh coconut.
The service was professional at CR Lounge. One nice touch is the way fresh silverware is presented to the diners on a platter. I might try that at home. It is a long walk for the waiters from the kitchen at the back of the house to the tables at the front of the restaurant. Maybe that is why Louie's, which was never known for its prompt service, put magazines and books up front.
The CR Lounge is not a place to go if you are trying to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans. But if you have had a bad day or simply need to reward yourself with some rich, artful comfort food, this is the place.
Baltimore being Baltimore, the CR Lounge will be known for a time as the place where Ixia or Louie's used to be. But with cooking like this, it will soon make its mark in the local restaurant geography.
Where: 518 N. Charles St.
Credit Cards: All major
Open: 5 p.m- 9:30 p.m Wednesday-Thursday, 5 p.m-10:30 p.m Friday, 6 p.m- 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m- 4 p.m.
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or uneven: ✭✭Poor:✭]