Tavern on the Square

Torta Gigante de Puerco at Tavern on the Square in Canton (Monica Lopossay, Baltimore Sun / March 5, 2012)

To an outsider, the pubs and taverns on O'Donnell Square might all look the same. But a Canton insider knows how to pick the one that suits his or her dating status, age group or mood.

Tavern on the Square, the newest addition to square, is, from what I can tell, attracting the same kind of crowd as did its predecessor, Fins. On a recent visit, the dining room was packed with families, double-dating couples and groups of friends. The crowd at the adjoining bar was a little older — maybe a little wiser — than what you'd find elsewhere on the square.

Fins changed hands last September, when it was purchased by Mel Carter, the general manager and part-owner of Blue Hill Tavern. Things stayed the same for a while, but right after the new year, Fins shut down and reopened one week later with a cosmetic makeover, a new menu and new name.

You can see already how Tavern on the Square could evolve into a Canton mainstay. But there's still work to be done. Right now, everyone here seems to be catching their breath — the kitchen crew especially, but the serving staff, too. The ingredients are here, though, as are good intentions.

The redone interior is decorated with black wood furniture and trim and vintage black-and-white photography of old Baltimore. The old tropical paradise scenes are gone. The walls are now a soothing aqua. Even with the changes, the bar's atmosphere and music still invade the dining room more than you'd like.

Credited to chef Jeremy Thatcher, the dinner menu at Tavern on the Square is impressively expansive, with about 16 appetizers, 14 sandwiches, 10 entrees, a half-dozen sandwiches and handful each of pizzas and panini. That's good news for diners who like to have a lot of choices, and there's more good news for diners looking for a little adventure.

Tavern on the Square's menu takes diners on a veritable safari, with appetizers like pheasant and waffle (a cornflake-fried pheasant leg with a buttermilk waffle and roasted pheasant gravy) and nachos topped with venison chili or wild-boar ragout. Among the sandwiches are a bison cheese steak and wild boar burritos. Panini are pressed with duck and arugula or Cuban shredded pork belly, pizzas are topped with venison sausage or duck confit, and the entrees include wild boar chops and pheasant pot pie.

These ambitious menu items are interspersed with more conventional fare like chicken tenders, shrimp fra diavlo and chicken carbonara. Broadening a menu's appeal is not a bad idea — Tavern on the Square doesn't claim to be a gastropub — but the mix of the exotic and the everyday is a little distracting, as though there were two philosophies at work in the kitchen.

A meal at Tavern on the Square gives you reason to think about things like that. The offerings are uneven right now. Menu items that are conceptually sound are falling somewhat flat on the plate. It feels like a new kitchen is being stretched by larger-than-expected crowds, and possibly a menu that's beyond its capacity. That's how it was when we visited, when well-considered dishes showed signs of having been rushed along the line.

It could have been a particularly crowded night, but it could also be a sign of a menu that's too big or too tricky to handle. In general, though, items that depended on quick assembly fared worse than those that could have been prepared in advance.

So an appetizer of spring rolls stuffed with tasty shredded duck, napa cabbage, carrots and celery, which only needs a quick drop in the fryer, comes across very well. And the winning pheasant pot pie, which only has to be baked off until the crust turns brown, shows the kitchen's forward-looking instincts. The pheasant's wild flavor survives delicately seasoned gravy. And something that needs only minor assemblage, like the lamb meatball sub, conveys the kitchen's good grasp of flavor. The sub, a toasted ciabatta roll overstuffed with two mammoth, herby lamb meatballs and dressed with a roasted red pepper-tomato marinara, is a keeper.

Items that ask for attention aren't getting it. Nachos topped with venison chili look thrown together — the chili has been ladled and the cheese has been melted unevenly and haphazardly over the crispy chips. The tension between inventive and plain cuisine plays out here, too. The nachos get "smothered in blended cheese," whether they're topped with venison chili, wild boar ragout or grilled chicken breast.

Sauteing and grilling are particular weak spots. Grilled calamari, although appealingly seasoned, arrive swimming in oil, which can happen when a pan gets too hot. And a good-looking wild boar chop, paired smartly with brandied braised apples and good steakhouse fries, carries a much too strong charred flavor, which can happen with an overly hot grill.

The weakest menu item we tried was a grilled pizza, topped with venison sausage and guanciale. The crust was badly underdone and the premium toppings were overwhelmed by a too-sweet tomato sauce.

The dessert selection at Tavern on the Square is limited to just three items. The specialty — ice cream sandwiches made from small oatmeal cookies stuffed with OK vanilla ice cream — is not very special.

With some menu management, there is potential for Tavern on the Square to be a great new alternative space on the square. Our table service was pleasant but otherwise unremarkable. An extra hand on deck, especially someone dedicated to the host station, would help. Tavern on the Square needs an occasional slow night, which it looks like they might not get for a while.

Tavern on the Square

Where: 2903 O'Donnell St., Canton

Contact: 410-675-1880

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$12; entrees, $16-$24

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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


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