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Restaurant Review: Chef Mac's is in tune with its audience

Welcome to improv dining.

Chef Mac's and All that Blues, the new home for Maclonza Lee's Louisiana cuisine, is part restaurant and part supper club. The kitchen serves from an a la carte menu on Tuesday through Thursday nights, but on Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant transforms into a live blues club, and patrons dine buffet-style. The $25 "all-inclusive" buffet features seafood on Friday and prime rib and barbecue on Saturday. The buffet nights have been doing turn-away business, I was told, and it looks like Baltimore, which for years has been starved for a community-based blues venue, may just have one.

And then there's the occasional Thursday evening that Chef Mac's hosts a WEAA simulcast featuring live music performances, and the new Wednesday night karaoke promotion. All this means is that the mood and the setup at Chef Mac's are variable. So check the website, or make a phone call, but do make sure you know what's happening at Chef's Mac on the night you decide to visit.

When we visited, Chef Mac's was packed with people who wanted to hear live music; most of them were from the surrounding Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods. Some of them had followed Lee from his storefront location farther down Harford Road, where they had developed close relationships with his beef brisket, crawfish etouffee and other Creole specialties. That Lee is a Louisiana native, steeped in the traditions of bayou cuisine, comes through clearly in his cooking, but he's not what I would call a traditionalist. Lee mixes things up a bit, and his food never feels like the kind amusement-park Cajun cooking you'll find at chain restaurants.

The new location was most recently the Parkside, which never seemed to figure out what to do with the massive dimensions of the place, basically one huge rectangular room. The setup is much more coherent now. A performance space has been erected about halfway back, creating two discrete dining areas, both of which are good vantage points. There remains up front a long bar, which seems odd, considering that Chef Mac's doesn't have a liquor license. But folks ended up here anyway on a packed weeknight, enjoying beer or wine they had brought in themselves.

The walls have been painted a soothing shade of purple, the black-topped tables are set simply with single candles. While there are still a few unresolved spaces here, it remains a vast improvement. Patrons were enjoying a new lounge area up front and unwinding in the freshly refurbished back area, which had been an eternal Siberia when this was Parkside.

I cannot guarantee you that a meal at Chef Mac's will unfold in an orderly fashion. My gut tells me that the service and pace here are likely to swing crazily from night to night. The buffet, if the food is at least as good as the a la carte offerings, feels like the best bet for a reasonably paced meal. Especially if you're a fan of the blues, you should take chance on it.

The best things we tried were straightforward Louisiana classics, dishes with big, round flavors and assertive seasoning, like the sides of sauce-thickened mac-and-cheese or liberally seasoned stewed okra and tomatoes. You can taste every bit of Lee's buttery roux in his gorgeous crawfish etouffee, and you can savor every moment of slow cooking in his zesty jambalaya, loaded up with hunks of browned andouille sausage.

An appetizer of barbecued shrimp is luxuriously buttery, with deep sweet notes from the accompanying caramelized onions. There's satisfying richness, too, in the Zydeco Bread appetizer, toasted French bread for dipping in a piping hot Cajun-spiced bean-and-cheese sauce.

But as I said earlier, Lee's cooking isn't rule-bound or corny, and he's not afraid to mix things up. The menu lists an entree of Cajun-grilled tofu or seitan, and he's lightened up the salt considerably on his batters. That's admirable, but maybe not so wise. An appetizer of fried crawfish a side of fried okra and a fried catfish entree, it turned out, were the things we liked least about our dinner. They were underseasoned.

But the one thing you must get is Lee's beef brisket, which he slow-cooks on a charcoal grill and serves on a toasted wheat bun. If you're dining with the right people, you can declare the brisket to be finger food and enjoy it slice by dark, heavenly slice.

Dessert, when we visited, was limited to what seemed like perfunctory and fusty options like sweet potato pie and peach cobbler.

I suggested earlier that Chef Mac's has potential to be something more than a restaurant. It is potentially something much bigger and more important for the city, an adults-only gathering space for people who haven't had a nice place to go hear live blues. Keep your ears open.

rgorelick@baltsun.com

You be the critic: Write your own review for Chef Mac's

Chef Mac's

Where: 4709 Harford Road, Moravia-Walther

Contact: 410-319.6227, http://www.chefmacs.com

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$12 Entrees, $12-$20

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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

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