Dining review

Inventive food and friendly vibes at Liv2Eat

For The Baltimore Sun

Liv2Eat in South Baltimore will be celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. That's a long time in the restaurant business, where many places fail early on.

The sweet, easygoing bistro has found a niche in the neighborhood with its succinct, inventive menu of appetizers and entrees. It also has elements to occupy the younger set, like a box of toy trains and a table painted with train tracks in a second dining room.

The name, which seemed odd when the restaurant opened, has caught on, too. Or, at least, familiarity with it has eased its strangeness.

The owners — chef Kevin Perry and his wife, Cecilia Benalcazar — weren't going for weird with the name. They were inspired by a comment from restaurateur Joe Bastianich, who has partnered with chef-TV personality Mario Batali on several projects: "People eat to live. We live to eat."

On our visit, we sat in the front room. It's a bright, nurturing space with windows facing the street and has a small bar, tables and high tops. There's a charming patio in the back for seating in warm weather.

We started our dinner with wonderfully chewy focaccia bread, dabbed with an excellent olive oil, before our appetizers arrived.

Drafts and bottles of beer are available, along with select cocktails. Interesting wines dominate the drinks list, including several reserves (wines generally made from better grapes and aged longer). Those are pricier.

We chose from the less expensive column and ended up with a crisp Sawtooth Chardonnay from Snake River Valley in Idaho that we recommend.

Perry updates his sophisticated menu with seasonal ingredients. But I was pleased to see some of the terrific dishes that I had on my first visit there several years ago — the stuffies (minced steamed clams mixed with chorizo and herb butter) and the risotto fritters, which were still outstanding.

The fritters almost didn't make it to our table. As the other appetizers were delivered, that one was missing. When we mentioned it to our friendly waitress, she said she hadn't heard us order it. But she rebounded quickly and retrieved the dish from the kitchen in record time.

We're glad we didn't miss out. The crispy, golden rice orbs were adorned with a silky chive creme fraiche and a shower of Parmesan cheese.

Even though the various salads sounded different on the menu, they were similar, with a couple of exchanges of ingredients. The ones we tried — the asparagus salad, the beet salad and the mixed green salad — were all fresh and good, though we were disappointed that a chicken egg had been substituted for the quail egg in the asparagus salad.

I like that the chef has some casual offerings, including a jumbo-lump crab cake sandwich and a Roseda Farm beef burger. We concentrated on the bigger entrees, which, for the most part, were successful.

A stellar, plump Amish chicken suited the creamy potato puree (a kitchen substitution for the ginger carrot puree usually served with the dish), asparagus and a puddle of sensuous black garlic sauce.

We also reveled in the saucy shrimp and white-hominy grits entwined with sauteed spinach.

The succulent slices of hanger steak, draped with a dynamic bordelaise sauce, were a table favorite. The meat was splayed on a cushion of fluffy potato puree, tucked with sauteed garlic spinach.

The hand-cut pasta dish left us puzzled. The long noodles were tossed with a mix of meaty sauteed mushrooms and were slippery with butter, but the dish tasted bland and could have used an extra flavor boost.

Desserts are made in house and deserve a nibble. Although the listed banana cream baklava wasn't available, we enjoyed other options.

The apple crisp, served in a cast-iron pan, was warm and homey, redolent with apples and crowned with a tennis ball-size scoop of vanilla bean Taharka Brothers ice cream.

An irresistible wedge of chocolate torte was embellished with a red berry sauce, chunky blackberries and vanilla ice cream. The cardamom creme brulee won us over with its aromatic spicy scent and taste.

Perry and Benalcazar have created a welcoming spot with creative food and a friendly vibe for area residents. Parking can be an issue, but the restaurant offers valet service on Fridays and Saturdays. Suburbanites should also consider venturing there. It's worth the drive.

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Rating: 3 stars

Where: 1444 Light St., South Baltimore

Contact: 443-449-7129, liv2eat.com

Open: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. dinner Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$18; entrees, $14-$32.

Food: New American

Noise/TVs: We could easily hold a conversation, even with others sitting in the dining room and at the bar; one TV.

Service: Our waitress was engaging and attentive.

Parking: Street parking, valet on Fridays and Saturdays.

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.]