Alligator Po'Boy

Shown is the Alligator Po'Boy sandwich served with handcut fries at the Rowhouse Grille. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / June 7, 2012)

Rowhouse Grille is a great name for a Baltimore tavern. You'd think there'd have been enough Rowhouse grills, bars and taverns over the years to fill the 2600 Block of Wilkens Ave.

But as far as I know, this handsome South Baltimore specimen, formerly the Light Street Station, is the first. Credit proprietor Patrick Dahlgren with creating a second living room for the neighborhood, the kind of place where you can come in by yourself on a weeknight, have a seat at the polished bar by the big open front window and make your way through a big, thick book.

The Rowhouse Grille attracts a more sedate crowd than what shows up at neighboring taverns in South Baltimore and Federal Hill. I think they must be grateful for having a decent place in the neighborhood, because even on a weeknight, both the ground and second floors were crowded with diners.

From all accounts, Dahlgren is an on-premises owner, something we see less and less of in Baltimore, and a patient one, too. Dahlgren grew up in the hospitality business. His stepfather is Hugh Sisson, who ran his family's old Federal Hill restaurant for years before founding the Clipper City Brewing Co., the Halethorpe brewery that produces the popular line of Heavy Seas beers. (Dahlgren has a hand in the new Heavy Seas Brewing Co., a fine new pub in Little Italy, but the Rowhouse Grille is his baby.)

Dahlgren took his time ramping up the restaurant's dinner service, and he's acknowledged a few false starts. He settled eventually on a talented chef named Tess Mosely, who, when it comes to a neighborhood menu, seems to have a good head on her shoulders.

She has won a following with familiar but carefully prepared pub fare like lobster macaroni and cheese, chicken and waffles, and slow-braised lamb shanks. But the big hit is the lineup of mussels, eight varieties in all, served with or without french fries. The regular lineup starts with the classic white wine, shallots, garlic, herbs and creme fraiche and moves on to modern pub versions like Tom Yum-lemon grass, Thai red curry and sun-dried tomato with chorizo.

Special mussel preparations can get wacky. When we visited, the broth options included smoked salmon and cream and something called the orange crush, which can't be as weird as it sounds.

Along with a few daily specials, there are only a handful each of appetizers, salads and entrees. There's an oyster po'boy on the regular menu but, oddly, not a hamburger. Everything we tried on the regular menu was at least satisfying, but we wished we had more choices.

We had a plate of cornmeal-crusted oysters served with a fine pickled-jalapeno mayonnaise dipping sauce on way too much iceberg lettuce, but we wished they'd been crunchier. A appetizer called Row Row shrimp turned out to be a more lightly fried, and refreshing, version of firecracker shrimp, served with a sauce made of Sriracha and sweet Thai chili.

The Hawaiian tuna special, a grilled Pacific tuna loin with truffled mashed potatoes and green beans and a lemon-olive tapenade, was very satisfying without seeming at all Hawaiian, at least in preparation. Maybe they were referring to the tuna itself. You're not always sure at Rowhouse Grille, where one of the regular menu items is a "wild Atlantic salmon." That's not likely, but I don't think it's intentionally misleading — a little unsophisticated, maybe.

Recently the Rowhouse has introduced a tasting menu, which is offered, by reservation only, at a four-seat, second-floor counter they're calling the Tasting Bar. Unlike the classic prix-fixe option, which gives diners an affordable approach to a regular menu, a typical tasting menu is a departure from a restaurant's everyday menu. Usually the portions are smaller but more intense.

There are many ways to pull it off, but this one didn't work. The first two courses, smoked salmon with wasabi cream and a grilled caprese salad, are just the kind of everyday items you'd expect to see on Rowhouse Grille's regular menu. The third course, an alligator po'boy, was also a featured special when we went for the tasting menu, which made it seem a lot less special to us.

Mostly, it lacks the one essential component of a tasting menu experience: a sense of discovery. The Tasting Bar itself doesn't help. Crammed too close together, the backless stools are murder to sit in, and the diners' view is of basically nothing interrupted by stray glimpses into the kitchen.

The Tasting Bar is doing no one at the Rowhouse any favors, least of all Mosely, whose best efforts — a fabulous venison rack and a perfectly handled wild boar tenderloin — not only arrive too late to save the hour but also make you wonder why Rowhouse doesn't just put them on the regular menu.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Rowhouse Grille

Where: 1400 Light St., South Baltimore

Contact: 443-438-7289, therowhousegrille.com

Hours: Open daily for dinner and for lunch on weekends

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$14; entrees, $15-$22

Food: ✭✭ 1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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


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