Halfway through our dinner at Phaze 10, a long, low and very loud note emanated from a horn someplace in the bar section of the building. It would've given us a start, but thanks to the restaurant's intensely flavorful Southern food, we were wide awake already.
The restaurant and jazz lounge opened last June on a stretch of Howard Street that feels somewhat desolate after dark. Inside Phaze 10's doors, however, the space is cozy and inviting, with a long, warmly lit bar and interesting architectural details like exposed brick arches.
Around 7 on a Wednesday night, the bar was filled, but the restaurant side of the space was only sparsely occupied, so we sat right away.
A moment later, a waitress arrived to take drink orders. Her sweet "ma'ams" and "sirs" — which seemed to be ingrained manners, not an act — proved that Phaze 10's Southern charm extended beyond its menu.
In place of a basket of rolls, dinner started with a complimentary skillet of cornbread. The bread was sweet, moist, and just a little crumbly — the way we like it — but should've been warmer.
The catfish fritter appetizer ($8) was more on point. Long strips of catfish, dunked in slightly spicy batter and fried, were nicely cooked and tasty. Catfish has a reputation as "trash fish," but the fish on our plate was flaky, fresh, and smelled great. The creamy dipping sauce could've been a little bolder, but the fritters were flavorful enough on their own.
Phaze 10's culinary focus spans the whole Southern region, including ubiquitous dishes like fried chicken to meals that represent specific parts of the South, like the gumbo-inspired Bayou Pasta ($14).
At first glance, we worried that the big bowl of pasta with chicken, sausage, and vegetables might be a mishmash of flavor. But the sausage was mild enough that it didn't overpower, the chicken was tender and only lightly seasoned, and the sauteed peppers and onions added freshness.
Tossed with a Cajun cream sauce that straddled the line between spicy and soothing, the pasta proved that comfort food doesn't have to be boring.
The menu recommended pairing the pasta with Snapdragon Riesling ($5). The wine's full and fruity profile stood up to the rich, spicy sauce. The match was a good one.
Phaze 10's ribs ($19 for a full rack) were less of a home run. Though we enjoyed the sweet, tomato-heavy sauce and the herbaceous rub seasoning the ribs, the meat itself was dry.
However, the sides made up for our disappointment. Braised collard greens were tender, savory and juicy, and Southern succotash — a mix of corn, red onion, and sauteed zucchini — was fresh and nicely seasoned.
Up to that point during the meal, service was spot on. But as we slowly finished our entrees, two overzealous busboys swooped in, attempting to clear plates and glasses before they were empty. When we asked to wrap up our extra ribs, one of the team misunderstood — or didn't hear, as his ears were plugged with headphones. We sadly watched him toss away the leftovers, unable to catch his attention to stop him.
Our dessert orders prompted some confusion, as well. A generous slice of sweet potato pie ($7) arrived immediately, full of autumnal flavor and spices. But a scoop of Taharka Brothers Maker's Mark butter pecan ice cream posed some challenges.
When the pie arrived, our waitress promised the ice cream was on its way. About five minutes later, she came back, explaining that they were out of the flavor. We opted instead for a scoop of Milk & Honey ice cream ($5), which was pleasantly creamy and just a little sweet, but not the bourbon-and-pecan bomb we were craving.
Still, those bumps in service at the end were minor and, in our minds, erased when the waitress handed us our check with another "thank you, ma'am." (The check came with a 15 percent gratuity added in, even for our party of two.)
We'd come for dinner, but we also hoped to catch part of the live jazz and open mic Phaze 10 hosts every Wednesday. According to the website, the music starts at 8 p.m.; unfortunately, during our visit, the start time was pushed back until 9, so we missed the entertainment.
Still, the buzz of the crowd, eager for live music, was contagious.
It was no surprise, then, that when we stepped back out into the quiet of Howard Street, bolstered by good food and the waitress' gracious attitude, we took the crowd's happy mood with us.
Back story: Opened on an underused stretch of Howard Street last June, Phaze 10 serves Southern-inspired comfort food in a warm, jazzy setting.
Parking: Street parking; valet parking for $6
Signature dish: The descriptively named Bayou Pasta is gumbo with an Italian twist. Tender chicken, mild sausage, and sauteed peppers and onions top pasta tossed with a spicy-creamy Cajun sauce for a dish that's comforting and full of flavor.
Where: 885 N. Howard St.
Contact: 410-462-2010; http://www.phaze10.com
Open: Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Bar is open until 12 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; Phaze 10 Grille is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday
Credit cards: All major
Rating: 3 stars
[Key: 5 stars: Superlative; 4 stars: Excellent; 3 stars: Very Good; 2 stars: Good; 1 star: Promising]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun