XS

"The Monster" (left) and "Tornado" are among the specialty sushi rolls at XS restaurant on Charles Street. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / January 4, 2011)

The folks at XS have been stirring. The multistory cafe, sushi bar and lounge has very recently revealed a freshened-up menu, along with a few weekly specials and a handsome new marketing package.

That's good to see; I like to see a restaurant trying. XS just passed its seventh anniversary, and although it appears to be doing well — it's always crowded when I walk by — I don't think anyone outside its core base of customers thinks of it much.

XS is located on the same strip of Charles Street in Midtown Belvedere as the other members of Jay's Restaurant Group. A few of these have taken on a sad-sack look, but XS still delivers a little vertiginous thrill, and the industrial space looks well cared for.

From the beginning, XS was intended to provide dawn-to-bedtime options for the Midtown Belvedere community. A ground-floor counter dispenses coffee and breakfast food; late at night, it sells gooey and very satisfying homemade pastries and gelato. The sushi bar just beyond it starts picking up business at lunch and stays busy through happy hour. For dinner, most folks head up the open staircase, first to a few seating platforms and then to the main dining level, which includes a full bar and adjacent lounge.

The menu has always sought to please a variety of tastes and moods. Breakfast is still served all day, and the sushi bar has recently added a few new specialty rolls to an already sizable roster. Pan-Asian offerings, things like tempura and assorted rice and noodle entrees, dominate the balance of the menu. There are new noodle dishes — Indonesian rice noodles and Shanghai egg noodles. Each of these, along with the fried rice, pad Thai, and yaki soba, can be ordered with the addition of chicken, tofu, scallops, shrimp, steak or scallops.

New on the menu, too — a grilled cheese section, offering a good, basic choice of breads and cheeses, with available upgrades.

The food, on the whole, is how it was when XS first opened. It's fine, really. I can't remember ever being thrilled with anything I've ordered at XS, but I've never been terribly disappointed, either. The Shanghai noodles, a little gloppy, are served in spicy black bean sauce that had a pleasantly spicy bite. (I have had a soft spot for the pad Thai at XS, which has for years, off and on, been my Sunday night comfort food.)

We tried a few of the newly introduced sushi bar specialties. The Monster Roll involves spicy lump crab meat with asparagus tempura and mango; the Ama Ebi makes use of fried shrimp, spicy lobster, mango and a kiwi sauce. They're pretty, but these sweet concoctions are not for me. One of the new marketing pushes offers 25 percent off maki rolls on Tuesday — that would be a good time to check out the less-fruity fare.

A sandwich of smoked gouda and white cheddar with bacon on challah, grilled by panini press, was straightforward. I'm thinking a spicy chutney would have livened it up; a few chips would also have been nice.

Know that DJs play here seven nights a week. We left just before the evening's set started, when the music was already a little thumpy. Know, too, that the service at XS has been a concern of mine since the day it opened. Too often, I've seen the staff absorbed in the television set or themselves; the front counter, where the staff's stars should work, has been haunted over the years by sullen malcontents. It's gotten much better lately — I've noticed more voluntary eye contact. But if the owners have ever spent an evening here greeting customers, I've never met them.

XS is upbeat and not very expensive — a good date place. Really, service is going to make the difference every time between a good experience at XS and a bad one. The trick for XS is to keep service from being a wild card.

Get more information about XS restaurant.

XS

Where: 1307 N. Charles St.

Contact: 410-468-0002, xsbaltimore.com

Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday

Appetizers: $4.75-$8.75

Entrees: $6.95-$13.95

Credit cards: All major

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ Good:✭✭✭ Fair or uneven:✭✭ Poor: ✭


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