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Fine dining's in the neighborhood at b

As chancy as the restaurant business is, some owners seem to know how to succeed, even where others have failed. And it's not always about finding a winning formula and repeating it. One of the best examples I can think of is the Karzai brothers, who own three very different eat ing places in Baltimore.

Their first, the Helmand, is an inexpensive Afghan restaurant. Tapas Teatro, next to the Charles Theatre, specializes in trendy small plates but can be pricey. Surprisingly the third, "b," a bistro in Bolton Hill, is as close as the Karzais come to a fine-dining restaurant.All three seem to be flourishing. Certainly they all have good food and good service, but that's not a guarantee of success. You might as well decide their winning formula is not being open for lunch. Or taking a chance on sometimes-iffy locations in the city. Whatever the secret, it's working.

When I say that b offers fine din ing, that's only part of the story. It also has plenty of light fare - piz zas, pastas, entree salads and sandwiches - so it's a casual neighborhood spot at the same time. At night, the high-ceilinged dining room with its huge win dows can seem quite elegant in the flickering candlelight, but look closer at the white table cloths and you'll see they're cov ered in white paper, bistro style. Somehow b's split personality works seamlessly.

It's hard to characterize the kitchen's style. New American is as accurate a description as any, which doesn't tell you much ex cept that Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern accents are as much at home here as local ingredients.

The menu is never clever just for the sake of being clever. That means if mussels are irresistible in a broth of white wine, fresh diced tomato, garlic and fresh ba sil (and b's are), there's no need to improve on them. But if a classic French potato soup, smooth as velvet, can be taken to new heights with the addition of lump crab, b does so.

The kitchen is versatile. It can produce perfect bistro fare like fall-off-the-bone chicken cooked osso buco style - braised with veg etables and finished with gremo lata (a garnish of minced parsley, garlic and lemon peel) - or some thing quite refined, such as grilled wild rockfish with polenta and fresh spinach with parmesan cheese and truffle oil. I would, by the way, dispense with the orchid on top.

Polenta makes an appearance again under succulent grilled oc topus and a bit of smooth house-made tomato sauce - one of b's best appetizers/small plates.

A salad at b might be an upscale arrangement of organic butter lettuce, diced marinated toma toes, and green goddess dressing, or a homey panzanella, bread sal ad with tomato and capers.

Pizza doughs and sauces are made on the premises. Our Marg herita Florentine, the classic to mato and cheese with the addi tion of fresh spinach, was fine but didn't have the thin, crisp crust I've come to expect in bistro piz zas. For light fare, try instead b's house ravioli. Of course, what's not to like with a plate of tender pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and roasted vegetables, and sauced with tomatoes, brown butter and sage?

Desserts are something special here. Besides the house-made ice creams, there's a wicked bread pudding and an even wickeder chocolate fig bread pudding. A pot de creme is layered vanilla and chocolate madness. But my downfall would be the individual apple pastry, warm and flaky, top ped with that good ice cream.

The restaurant has its flaws. Parking is one. And like other ur ban bistros, with one room and an open kitchen, it can be crowded and noisy. The lower-case b is kind of silly.

But I can't wait until it's warm enough to sit outside in Bolton Street's leafy shade. That and those mussels and a glass of white wine: heaven.

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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