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Restaurant Review: Bistro Rx working on its formula

This parkside restaurant location, now the home of Bistro Rx, seems so perfect. Originally developed in 2006 by a community development corporation as an amenity for the surrounding neighborhoods, it looks like a place where a restaurant would do great business. In nice weather, when tables are set up on Linwood Avenue, there's hardly any place you'd rather be. But two restaurants have already come and gone here, and quickly.

Everyone seemed to understand why the first attempt, Parkside, foundered — it was, by most accounts (including mine), amateur hour. It lasted less than two years. The next tenant, Three, lasted twice as long but eventually fell victim to internal squabbling and ineffectual marketing — I don't think it ever got a website up and running.

It was never entirely clear whether Parkside or Three was trying to be a destination restaurant or a spot for the neighborhood. If you can pull it off, the niftiest trick of all is to make a destination restaurant feel like a local hangout. Hamilton Tavern has managed this, and so has Peter's Inn, and one of the best local-feeling pubs anywhere in Baltimore is Mahaffey's Pub in Canton.

Mahaffey's owner, Wayne Mahaffey, is the man behind Bistro Rx, and on a recent weeknight, it felt like a place just for the folks of Baltimore-Linwood, Baltimore Highlands and McElderry Park. When you walk in, you get a big, warm greeting from the bartender (an import from Mahaffey's Pub) and from the proprietor himself, who is relaxing at the bar.

"Jeopardy" is on the television, and then "Wheel of Fortune," and if that's irritating at first — because jazz is playing at the same time on the sound system— it's eventually ingratiating, and you begin, as Mahaffey does, to shout out answers. New guests arrive, and when they do, the inside joke is, "You again — long time, no see."

The bar is at the back end of the high-ceilinged main space, which remains a handsome brick-and-glass affair. There is a scattering of tables up front but they feel a little unmoored, and the more inviting dining space is in an intimate loft a few steps up.

The chef here is Jason Lear, formerly of the Wine Market, who was brought in a few months after Bistro Rx's opening. He's not credited on the menu or the website, though, and it's not clear how much of the menu is his and how much is the owner's. The menu feels like a cordial compromise between chef and proprietor, a sensible mix of everyday, moderately priced fare with just enough room for a chef to make his presence felt.

Most of what I'm taking to be chef's choices do show up, as they often do, on the appetizer list. I'm thinking of a bison tartare, flatbreads topped with crispy prosciutto and a special pork en croute appetizer. The flatbreads, one of the two on the appetizer menu (another is topped with mushrooms, asparagus and caramelized onions) were short on crispness and character; the prosciutto got lost in a herbed tomato; and the thin flatbreads were floppy. The pork appetizer was undermined by a soggy crust. It was the tartare, served with homemade chips, that was the major bummer, though. It tasted heavily of mayonnaise and not much else.

Grilled, herb-rubbed chicken wings are served with a trio of dipping sauces, all of them good — a sweet-and-spicy sauce particularly so — but the wings themselves didn't have good flavor and weren't convincingly grilled — they tasted like they'd been broiled. But there was one spectacular, fall-in-love-with appetizer here — of all things, the house's mac and cheese, that staple of the contemporary bistro. No lobster here, and no truffle oil — instead, spicy chorizo and a smart mix of Vermont cheddar and pepper jack cheese smoothly mixed in with tiny pasta tubes.

The entrees we ordered, with a major exception, were more consistently appealing but seldom very compelling.

There was very good, stocky flavor in the gorgonzola demi-glace accompanying the house's attempt at steak frites. The flatiron steak was blameless; the saboteur here were gummy truffled fries. Blackened jumbo shrimp, served with wilted spinach over cheddar grits, worked well, too, and the shrimp were firm and flavorful; the grits, though, were far too salty. The evening's special was a workmanlike rosemary and balsamic-glazed half -ack of lamb, served with truffled potatoes and a mint demi-glace.

There, too, was the possibility of a thoroughly repellent dish like the Asian beef and noodle bowl, with its overdone noodles, watery broth, tough strips of beef.

Dessert here is a limited menu of stock characters — creme brulee, a berry bread pudding, a mousse trio and a deep-fried Twinkie. The Twinkie, I admit, was good, fatty fun.

I like it at Bistro Rx. The atmosphere is relaxing, the beer and wine selections are liberal and thoughtful, and the service is helpful, friendly and unobtrusive. The real service test for Mahaffey and company will come in the spring, to see whether they can handle the outdoor seating on Linwood Street.

That the food at Bistro Rx, from a chef capable of dazzling, was so often indistinct, or even mediocre, is very puzzling.

Bistro Rx

Where: 2910 E. Baltimore St.

Contact: 410-276-0820, http://www.bistrorx.net

Hours: Open for dinner seven days a week and for Saturday and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11 Entrees, $14-$18

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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