If it took me too long to get to Mr. Rain's Fun House, I'm in good company.
Approaching its second anniversary, the delightful restaurant has yet to penetrate the city's culinary mind. For one thing, I don't think that wacky name has been doing it any favors. And while its location on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum is a perfect fit for Bill Buszinski's freewheeling American cuisine, Mr. Rain's Fun House is out of sight, out of mind.
By day, it's a natural lunch destination for museum-goers, but if you told me Mr Rain's has had more than a couple dozen walk-ins for dinner over the past two years, I'd die laughing. Except for a large birthday gathering, the dining room was nearly empty on a recent visit. Mr. Rain's does have a local following, but it deserves a larger one.
This is an excellent restaurant that manages to be both part of a progressive culinary movement and its very own thing. The experienced staff members aren't shy about their sense of fashion, and Buszinski's kitchen isn't afraid of displaying flourishes of wit, just not at the expense of flavor.
Don't get me wrong. I love those wood-and-fire restaurants, where the spirits of the cow and the chicken hover over the plate. But Mr. Rain's is a chance to get out of your flannels, put on a puffy shirt and dine in a sophisticated and serene room where the predominant colors are orange and purple.
The good times at Mr. Rain's begin at the impeccably tended bar, which an office party had commandeered when we visited. The forward-thinking cocktail and wine program is the work of Mr. Rain's beverage director, Perez Klebahn, a champion of America whiskeys and imported aperitifs. The specialty cocktails are impeccably crafted, expensive and labor-intensive — a notice on the bar menu asks diners to be patient while the drinks are being prepared. Klebahn's European-leaning wine list favors small-batch producers and family estates.
Dinner in Mr. Rain's airy, attractive dining room moves along at a pleasurably calm pace under the alert control of a capable wait staff. Buszinski dispenses with distracting small-plates and extraneous categories. It's simply a concentrated offering of a dozen appetizers, eight entrees and a handful of sides. It begins with simple things, like a soup of Bartlett pears with blue cheese and sage and a Waldorf salad with Fuji apple, but then come some curveballs, and the kitchen delivers all of it with efficient precision.
Buszinski knows to leave an appetizer of bison pastrami pretty much alone, accompanying it with only a syrupy sassafras aioli. But for grilled beef heart, he uses some sleight-of-hand. The beef heart is grilled with onions, poblano and cocoa chili sauce, and you could fool someone into thinking it was just really wonderful pepper steak.
If those appetizers make statements with uncomplicated flavors, a luscious tuna poke appetizer gets to work in a little beauty. Poke (pronounced po-KAY), Hawaiian-style sashimi, is served with a foam of avocado and a sliver of tuna "candy," which you can safely think of as jerky. A roasted bone marrow appetizer is odd, though. The bone isn't split, as it usually is, and this version is more gelatinous than you might like. But the presentation begins to makes sense when you mix the marrow with the plate's parsley salad and garlic.
Entrees tend toward the emphatic. A juicy and simply seasoned pork rib chop comes perched gently atop a flan made from kabocha squash. It's an arrangement in beige, but on the plate's edge, a fan of orange and yellow baby carrots seem to be cheering on the whole entree. A bitter orange sauce neatly complements and brightens the gamy power of a Moulard duck breast, and springy sweet potato gnocchi complete the plate's earthy picture.
An entree of pan-roasted rockfish veers dangerously into the overproduced lane. Both the warm fennel-potato salad and a parsley malt-vinegar coulis feel right for this wild fish, but okra doesn't do much except confirm that okra gets gooey and tacky when you cook it. Served with poached celery root, carrot and vanilla, a scallops entree is dinner's lone instance of style over substance, its only spark coming from bits of Seranno ham. It was the least loved among the table's entrees.
Dessert is taken seriously and seasonally — pumpkin sponge cake with cream cheese mousse and caramel, an apple cheesecake gingersnap streusel, and coffee stout cake with allspice butter pecan ice cream and ginger pear compote were on the menu, as were a collection of homemade ice creams.
Mr. Rain's Fun House follows several versions of the Joy America Cafe in this top-floor restaurant space. A pre-Woodberry Kitchen Spike Gjerde was here, of course. If you're struggling to remember the name of the food-stacking, four-star chef from Santa Fe, N.M., who founded Joy America, it's Peter Zimmer.
Back in 1995, Zimmer was supposed to turn Baltimore dining upside down. Baltimore resisted his version of dining-as-spectacle, and Zimmer returned to Santa Fe soon after Joy America opened. Today, he's a footnote, if that, in Baltimore's contemporary dining history.
But if you look sideways, you can still see bits and pieces of Zimmer's big style in modest and charming restaurants all over town. It's nice that one of the best of them, Mr. Rain's Fun House, is right back where it, almost, all started.
Mr. Rain's Fun House
Where: 800 Key Highway, American Visionary Art Museum, Federal Hill
Contact: 443-524-7379, http://www.mrrainsfunhouse.com
Hours: Open Tuesdays-Sundays for lunch or brunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$14; entrees, $16-$28
Food: ✭✭✭ 1/2
Atmosphere: ✭✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭