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Good things come from small Liv2Eat

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Baltimore has a shortage of good, small restaurants, the kind with 20 or 30 seats, where diners can have some intimacy. Restaurants, at least the ones I've been reviewing, have been getting bigger, brassier, louder. I'm not complaining. I've been having some great dinners in big and medium-size, crowded restaurants.

A sweet, small new restaurant named Liv2Eat has opened in South Baltimore. I'll confess to hating the name on sight. I got over it, and I hope others do and give it a chance.

Liv2Eat is run by a couple, Cecilia Benalcazar and Kevin Perry, the chef, who live upstairs from the restaurant with their infant son. They've thrown themselves into their restaurant. You can feel how much they care. Liv2Eat opened around Election Day, and I started hearing nice things about it right away.

This is the South Baltimore space that began a dozen years ago as the Bicycle, a restaurant that shook things up. The Bicycle was run by a couple, Debra Mazzoleni and Barry Rumsey, who threw themselves into their restaurant. They lived upstairs, too.

Liv2Eat is not the return of the Bicycle, which was edgy and refreshingly up-front about its own sophistication. Rumsey's food was idiosyncratic and attention-getting. Perry is a different kind of chef, and Liv2Eat is a more unassuming, and modest, restaurant.

There's a noodle dish that captures Perry's style; it appears on the menu as House Noodles, and it's prepared with porcini and pork jowl. Perry makes his pasta with an odd guitar-like instrument called a chittara. We had never heard of a chittara, much less seen one. The server offered to bring it over to our table. It's personal cooking.

The opening menu, geared for fall, consists of nine appetizers, seven entrees and four each of salads and side dishes. Everything on the menu was something I wanted to try.

The Stuffies, a stuffed clam preparation, are a must. The clams are removed from the shell, minced, baked with chorizo, bread crumbs and herb butter, and spooned back in the shell. Then they're baked golden and served hot. They're delicious, and beautiful on the plate, as was everything the kitchen produced. There was a lovely arrangement of colors and flavors on an appetizer of scallops with butternut squash puree and black quinoa. Risotto fritters, a take on arancini, are crispy, warm and cheesy, cooled by a creme fraiche seasoned with chives; they arrive stacked, like a savory croque en bouche.

Also lovely, and worth getting, was a hand-dressed salad with roasted Bartlett pears, walnuts and mild Point Reyes blue cheese.

There's pleasure in a small, smartly crafted menu. You spend less time thinking about your dinner and more time enjoying it and the company of your friends. The small wine list is approachable and modestly priced, with full-bodied wines like Torrontes and Tempranillo that work nicely with the fall menu.

A few items, like the onion soup and the homemade agnolotti pasta, weren't available. There was no short rib for the Roseda Farm beef duo, but they compensated with a larger portion of strip loin. There were a few other announced departures from the menu. The chowder was using roasted fingerling potatoes instead of a potato pave, kind of a crispy potato block.

That's to be expected in a small new place. In a way, it can make things seem more personal. But you can see how the short rib would have made a fine beef entree even better, and how the potato pave could have worked better than fingerling potatoes in the chowder entree, which came across less like a chowder than seafood in cream sauce, and in need of some oomph. So did the pasta, really.

When everything is in place, the results are stellar. Pieces of juicy roasted chicken are served with a celery root puree and a wonderful rice pilaf stuffed with figs and roasted hazelnuts.

Dessert is very simple, either homemade cookies served with milk, or a baked McIntosh apple with ice cream. That's plenty for me.

The small dining rooms have been repainted and refurnished. They're warm and intimate. If you remember the Bicycle, you'll be happy to hear that the back patio is being nursed back into shape. The new owners hope to have it ready for spring.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Liv2Eat

Rating: ***

Where: 1444 Light St., South Baltimore

Contact: 443-449-7129

Open: Tuesday through Sunday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers $6-$12; entrees $18-$26

Food: Seasonal cuisine, rooted on the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Maryland

Service: Personable and knowledgeable

Best dishes: Amish chicken; Roseda farm beef; Stuffies, a variation on clams casino

Children: There is no children's menu. Highchairs are available.

Parking: Valet parking is offered for $5

Outdoor seating: The back patio is due back in the spring

Noise level: Comfortable, with quiet music playing

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: * ]

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