Baltimore likes to bring new life to old buildings. That has happened at Dionysus.
Over the years, the rowhouse at 8 E. Preston St. has been home to many restaurants. Torremolinos, La Cantina and Center City Restaurant have occupied this spot just east of North Charles Street in Mount Vernon. It became Dionysus about five years ago. Now this small, two-level operation — bar in the basement, dining room on the second floor — has a new chef and spirit.
Chef Shawn Lagergren, who has previously worked at Luca's Cafe in Locust Point and the Village Square Cafe in Cross Keys, came to Dionysus about three months ago. The bar, with its wide selection of beers, has been a good place to drink and listen to live music. With Lagergren at work, the dining room is a good place to eat.
The menu, like the space in the dining room, is limited. There are sandwiches and other pub food mixed in with more complicated dishes. What the kitchen does, it does well.
An appetizer of steamed shrimp, $9 for half a pound, could, in less-competent hands, easily become overcooked and rubbery. Instead, these shrimp are plump, succulent and perfectly steamed, with just a hint of Old Bay. The bruschetta appetizer, $7, slices of crusty Italian bread topped with fresh vegetables and a tangy olive spread, is delectable.
The stuffed eggplant entree, $12, is also winning. Half an eggplant filled with cubes of onion, eggplant and red peppers is mixed with mozzarella. Unlike so many vegetable dishes that live in the land of bland, this one sparkles with fresh flavors of the vegetables and with a hint of smoke.
The lobster ravioli, a $16 special, is spectacular. Delicate squares of handmade ravioli are filled with lobster and shiitake mushrooms, then bathed in a sensuous marsala cream sauce. This is a knockout.
The desserts, like the pasta, are made in the restaurant's kitchen. A whoopie pie, $4 — squares of dark chocolate cake layered with sweet cream — is satisfying yet not too sweet. The house-made cheesecake, $4, with a sweet crumbly crust, is artfully done.
The upstairs dining area, about six tables covered with white tablecloths, will, we were told, soon welcome a wine bar. Right now it isn't gorgeous. But with the chef's fine fare and $4 glasses of dry rose and Chianti, it is a pleasant enough place to enjoy a well-crafted meal.
A few tables have been set up on the sidewalk, hugging the roaring traffic of Preston Street. Smokers like these outdoor tables, I was told. Our server had to scramble up and down the stairs to get to us, but she was prompt, knowledgeable and pleasing.
Fittingly, Dionysus, named after the Greek god of revelry and wine who was also considered a patron of the arts, is a short walk to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
In Greek mythology, Dionysus came back from the dead. In Baltimore, this small midtown restaurant has brought fresh culinary pleasure and new vitality life to a familiar site.
Where: 8 E. Preston St.
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday