The question for Slainte: Are you or aren't you a gastropub?
Last month, Slainte in Fells Point began incorporating what it calls "gastropub" items into its menu of Irish pub fare. This is something the Fells Point bar has been hinting at ever since Bill Crouse came aboard as executive chef for parent company Fells Point Restaurants last summer.
The term "gastropub" was coined in 1991 in England, and the trend has taken firm root there and elsewhere. It's a word some people find objectionable (others merely find it baffling), but let's say that you'd know a gastropub when you saw one. The menu would have something to say about the chef's attitudes and interests. You might find menu items like grilled steak of Berkshire roe deer and Douglas fir sausage or char-grilled duck hearts on skewers — real-life examples. Classic pub fare like shepherd's pie and kidney stew would still be there, but with fresh attention and loving treatment.
Fundamentally, there's only one wrong way to go about being a gastropub: tentatively.
So far, Slainte has only a scattering of new menu items, a few appetizers and a handful of entrees, and for the most part they're not readily distinguishable from standard pub fare. This halfway approach isn't doing anyone any favors — not Slainte, not diners, not Crouse, who, based on what we saw, may not have the kitchen he needs to implement his ideas.
Our dinner at Slainte, which included both old and new menu items, was a disappointment right off the bat..
The menu describes mushroom gnuddi, a new menu item, as an Irish version of gnocchi — "fried to a golden crisp and served with brown butter and sage." They're actually deep-fried, which reduces them to a bar snack — and a runny butter doesn't help matters. And the menu says that its poutine fries, a Canadian import lately cropping up on area menus, are served with a truffled chicken reduction (true enough, and a good one) and mozzarella curds (not so at all — they're served with gloppy orange cheese).
There were more disconnects between menu and execution, and you start to wonder whether the kitchen is behind the new menu. A whole-grain mustard remoulade was promised for an appetizer of smoked trout croquettes, but instead of a remoulade, the plate received a generous dose of whole-grain mustard — it was actually a pretty effect, but the mustard didn't adhere well to the coarse croquettes. Among the appetizers, a Scotch egg came off best . It was fried up nicely with a good use of bison sausage and served over a bed of cheese grits that a Charleston native at our table raved about. Even here, a bit of weirdness — little roasted cherry tomatoes that seemed as if they had wandered in from another dish.
We dined at Slainte on "land and sea" night, on which a pair of specials presented a duo each of seafood and meat preparations. These looked to us like chef's statements, a window into what might be in store as Slainte continues along its gastropub path. (For the record, we failed to discern, on the regular menu, the gastropub status of grilled Duroc pork loin with spaetzle, the Guinness Sunday roast, and the fish and chips battered with Heavy Seas ale.)
A pairing of grilled teres major steak with bacon-wrapped salmon exposed the kitchen's tendency to underseason its proteins, as did the other pairing — grilled chicken and sausage kebabs and a pistachio-crusted haddock. There were bright, and encouraging, things about both plates, like the lovely shaved celery salad that accompanied the steak (which the kitchen had started to carve into slices, then mysteriously stopped), and the perfect braised lentils that came with the salmon. Also good was the pistachio pesto: a fresh idea, nicely handled, and the sprig of fresh rosemary that served as the skewer for the flavorless kebab meat.
There wasn't better news from the regular menu. Skate was the catch of the day. It arrived in bad shape, with a mushy texture and smelling, as skate sometimes unfortunately will, of ammonia. The tasty, full-fat flavor of braised pork shoulder helps a Dubliner mac & cheese, but not enough to make you overlook its dull, ungarnished plating.
Dessert was more of the same: an apple cobbler that hadn't been assembled or baked off properly, resulting in a granular, mushy topping; and a new item, fried dumplings with chocolate ganache, garnished with sliced strawberries, a final half-measure of unseasonable irrelevancy.
If all of this sounds like bad news, it should be said that it was a pleasant evening at Slainte. The upper-floor dining room, beautifully outfitted with bar furniture imported from Ireland, remains a knockout, with a harbor view to die for. There's room for a real gastropub in Fells Point, but there's not a great hue and cry for one of them either. I think halfway is absolutely the wrong way. Slainte should make its mind up.
Where: 1700 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-563-6600, slainte.com
Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$14 Entrees, $13-$22
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]