Dining review

South Baltimore's Minnow restaurant can swim with the big fish

For The Baltimore Sun

After being wowed by La Cuchara in the Meadow Mill complex, I couldn’t wait to see what brothers Ben and Jacob Lefenfeld would do with their new place, Minnow, in South Baltimore.

While La Cuchara concentrates on food from the Basque region, Minnow is carving out its own identity with a focus on seafood with a few meat options, including a bodacious range steak.

The one-page menu, under the guidance of chef Drew Lesoveck, is organized into categories like smalls, biggies, sides and bait. Ben Lefenfeld, who handles the kitchen at La Cuchara, works with Lesoveck on the recipes.

Lefenfeld’s wife, Amy, is also an owner. Jacob Lefenfeld is the restaurant’s general manager and is a genial presence in the dining room.

The restaurant, in the 2 East Wells apartment building, reflects its name and aesthetic with colorful fish lures decorating the chic, modern space, which has an industrial vibe. Wood accents add a rustic flare, with open dividers separating the bar and the bright, open kitchen.

It’s a noisy place that can be interpreted as lively or overwhelming, depending on what type of dining experience you’re seeking. We didn’t mind the loud chatter because we were still able to communicate with our tablemates.

Our laidback waitress did a great job of pacing our meal and keeping our drinks refreshed. Various cocktails and beers are offered, including Union Craft Brewing’s Old Pro and Anthem on draft.

We were impressed with the Mediterranean focus of the wine list (at least 100 bottles). Our pinot noir by the glass from Tikves, Macedonia, was a stunner with its deep-cherry and vanilla notes.

Many of the small plates at Minnow could easily be a main meal, like the fine shrimp ceviche. The lime-marinated crustaceans, tossed with red onions and cilantro, were tender and plentiful, served with crispy corn-tortilla triangles.

The moules frites were outstanding, with plenty of mussels bathing in a white-wine liquid and crowned with thin, crunchy fries. The dish was dolloped with a creamy roasted garlic aioli that made the other components even better.

The scallops were also a successful starter. Three seared orbs were perched atop truffle-perfumed fingerling potatoes, nestled next to a pool of parsley puree.

The cheddar biscuits, on the other hand, weren’t what we expected. They were dense, heavy morsels that didn’t appeal to us.

We also tried one of the “bait” items: the boquerones, or filleted fresh anchovies. The wonderful tiny fish were tucked in a shallow tin can with olive tapenade, lemon aioli and a thick slice of brown bread.

In a nod to the city’s culinary past, Minnow offers Baltimore coddies, but these are a “new age” version, Jacob Lefenfeld said. The two fat cod cakes were terrific, modern-day fish patties sharing space on the plate with sauteed spinach and pea shoots. They got a citrusy boost from a puddle of orange beurre blanc.

The grilled rainbow trout was a heavenly filleted whole fish — with a face — reclining on a swatch of perky arugula pesto. Roasted asparagus was draped over the trout, with chunky almonds scattered like pebbles to complete the dish.

Another fish dish, the merluza, was equally impressive. The mild white fillet was supple and flaky, stacked on a bed of asparagus and bacon-roasted Red Bliss potatoes. A splash of wild-garlic cream at the bottom of the dish provided another enhancement.

We enjoyed the Creekstone Farms steak. I wasn’t familiar with a “range” cut, but Lefenfeld explained that it is the end cut of a strip loin.

This blushing slab, cooked medium rare as requested, was mouthwatering. It came adorned with spring garlic, Red Bliss potatoes and a pat of captivating smoked-oyster butter that melted silkily into the hot meat.

We were enamored with the English peas, one of the side dishes. The spring-green legumes were addictive with chunks of bacon, nutmeg and thyme.

By this time, we were giddy with good food. But Minnow’s dessert menu is something to look forward to, complete with suggestions for drink pairings.

The thick chocolate olive-oil pot de creme was elegant with creme Chantilly and an orange-rosemary sable, or cookie, half of which was dipped in chocolate.

The peanut fluffernutter pie was down-to-earth and scrumptious. A fluffy layer of peanut-butter mousse rested on a fudge-brownie base with swirls of toasted marshmallow fluff dotting the pie and plate, which was scrawled with chocolate.

It looks like the Lefenfeld brothers have scored another winner. Minnow can swim with the big fish in town.

Minnow

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 2 E. Wells St., South Baltimore

Contact: 443-759-6537, minnowbaltimore.com

Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$15; entrees, $13-$32

Food: Regional seafood

Noise/TVs: The atmosphere can be boisterous; four TVs in the bar area.

Service: Our efficient waitress didn’t miss a beat during the evening.

Parking: Complimentary valet parking

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

lsuzanne@comcast.net

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