At Punk's Backyard Grill, backyard concept plays well

Baltimore Sun

I always thought it would be fun to live in one of those cities where new products are tested. It must be neat to offer opinions about a thing still in development, knowing that someday you might look on, say, an automatic fabric softener dispenser with personal pride - "that fill line, my idea." And whenever I go to a movie preview, I dutifully fill out a little survey card. (I always write, "More dancing!")

Anyway, sitting in judgment of someone else's concept is a large part of the fun of going to Punk's Backyard Grill, the lone locally owned restaurant among a dozen or so national chains that ring the Westfield Annapolis Mall. Punk's is the brainchild of Sheila Laderberg, David McCabe and Jeffrey Sloan, who met at the highly regarded Cornell School of Hotel Administration, where their Punk's concept won the school's annual restaurant-concept contest.

Much time passed between then and the opening, about this time last year, of the flagship Punk's in Annapolis (there remains only this one Punk's, with hopes of growth), along with many, many refinements to the original plans, but the essential concept - an evocation of the American backyard gathering - endured.

This backyard Americana thing, it could have come off so badly - it could have easily been a horror show, pink flamingos, seating in a kid's inflatable pool - but the most impressive thing about Punk's is how restrained it is. Basically an atrium space, Punk's doesn't really intend to be a literal re-creation of an American backyard - and whose backyard would it be? - more like an evocation of it. Yes, the tables and chairs here are patio-style, but not the good kind that people who take care of their stuff buy. Design elements like blue paint on the ceiling and clapboard near the kitchen are meant to suggest "the sky" or "a porch" but not to fool the eye into thinking they're there.

The menu observes the theme similarly. Everything on it is something that might legitimately appear at a backyard gathering, if your neighbors were health-conscious, shopped locally and watched lots of cooking shows. So, the hamburger's origins are spelled out (100 percent beef from Vande Rose Farms) and someone has shown up with a beet, goat cheese, walnut and orange salad. The fountain drinks are Boylan's, the beer selection is crafty, and the homemade iced tea is sweetened with cane sugar.

The basic offerings are grouped into sandwiches, grilled plates, or skewers, salads and sides. And what you find yourself guiltily thinking when you're eating the decent, very nicely turned-out food, is that it kind of needs a gimmick. That burger, for instance - it's admirably natural and good but maybe a little boring, too timid in its seasoning. The same restraint that kept Punk's from becoming a kitsch nightmare comes across differently with the food, as cautiousness, or good business, depending on how you look at it, but bordering dangerously on uncreative.

The sides we tried were like that - beside the beet salad, a roasted corn and black bean salad, and a white-cheddar macaroni and cheese - blamelessly prepared but impersonal, and too gourmet shop-y. I appreciated, then, the unexpected bit of fire on the flatiron skewers, but wished the accompanying flatbread and mixed greens had been less familiar. I was very impressed, though, with Punk's grilled chicken breast sandwich, an item that can be a punishment elsewhere. Here, marinating makes it tender and an herbed buttermilk spread gives it flavor.

For dessert, an ice cream sandwich and a pumpkin bread pudding hit me the same way. This is good, but I wish I cared about it more. What made the best impression? A gorgeous ginger-flavored margarita that had all of the personality the food needs more of.

On the menu •Fiery flatiron steak skewers - $9.99

•Punk's all natural burger - $6.49

•Skinny chicken sandwich - $6.49

•Beet, goat cheese, walnut, and orange salad - $4.79

•White cheddar macaroni and cheese - $2.29

•Roasted corn and black bean salad - $2.49

•Ice cream cookie sandwich - $2.99

•Pumpkin bread pudding - $3.59

Punk's Backyard Grill Where: 2188 Annapolis Mall, Annapolis

Contact: 410-571-7744

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Appetizers/Sides: $1.99-$7.29

Entrees: $6.49-$9.99

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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