Ze Mean Bean finds its forte with comfortable Slavic fare

Sun restaurant critic

Sure, the name is annoying. It's a holdover from years ago when Ze Mean Bean Cafe was a coffeehouse, and it really doesn't give you a good idea of what kind of place it is now. Over time, Ze Mean Bean became more of a restaurant, first serving an odd combination of eastern European specialties and coffeehouse fare, then getting a serious chef and turning into a restaurant that served down-home Slavic food and fancy fusion cuisine. The current executive chef is Dennis Keruly.

Homemade potato dumplings with Polish kielbasa? Or Chilean sea bass marinated in tomato brine, seared and topped with sage butter stencil and served with candied shallot Israeli couscous, roasted butternut squash compote and balsamic glaze? That's the sort of choice you'll be making; either way you go, I think you'll be pretty happy.

Ze Mean Bean is in a cute little space, with a few tables downstairs near the bar (while it doesn't get much press, it's a respectable wine bar) and an upstairs dining room. The rooms were renovated this fall, but the essential spirit of the place is the same, only with more comfortable seating. The downstairs in particular is colorful and cozy, and about as far as you can get from minimalist contemporary decor.

If you're in the mood for eastern European fare, it's hard to beat Thursday's Slavic night special: borscht and a pierogi or holupki (cabbage rolls) dinner for $9.95. The borscht isn't the meal-in-itself soup, but mostly beets and broth topped with sour cream. The flavor is fine, but I wasn't as impressed with it as I was with the main course, seven tender Slavic dumplings filled variously with farmer's cheese, potatoes and sauerkraut. It came with sweet-sour red cabbage and perfectly cooked broccolini.

Sometimes, Keruly has the fusion thing going, as when he combines juicy chunks of lobster meat, asparagus, peppers and onions with potato dumplings. But I prefer either the comfort-food or a wildly imaginative entree such as fall-off-the-bone short ribs jazzed up with ginger and chili and served with an absurd but likable chai sauce that tasted like sweet tea with froth. It comes with a fried triangle of cassava that tastes, for want of a better description, something like fried polenta.

One of the strengths of this kitchen is that fresh vegetables are cooked perfectly, so they are jewel green and just tender. I was more impressed with the slender asparagus spear or two, the few green beans and the stalk of broccolini that came with the chicken Kiev than the chicken itself, which was wrapped around cold butter as it should be, but would be better breaded and deep fried so the butter spurts out when you cut into it. This seemed to be a healthier version, which didn't quite work for me.

As for first courses, we fell on the Slavic Sampler, which had a cabbage roll stuffed with ground beef and rice and a relatively delicate tomato sauce, more of those good pierogi, and potato pancakes with what tasted like homemade applesauce. But it's the spicy kielbasa that makes it.

Then there's the Hungarian-style crepe, something like a giant egg roll, stuffed with tender pieces of game hen and raisins and other dried fruit. It's a little sweet and heavy for me as a first course, but appealing all the same.

Speaking of sweet and heavy, the desserts are made by the owner's mother, our waitress told us, and run to the likes of a chocolate mousse torte, apple pie and apple cake -- obviously homemade, and not for the faint of heart.

Ze Mean Bean is one of those restaurants that captures the essence of what's good about Baltimore at the mid-price level: Food as homey as a cabbage roll and as entertaining as a game hen with apple-daikon slaw and black currants; good-natured service; and a fun, cozy little dining room that looks like your grandmother's living room -- if your grandmother were a hipster and had a wine bar.

Food *** (3 stars)
Service *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere *** (3 stars
Address: 1739 Fleet St., Fells Point
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$11; main courses, $10-$24
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch
Call: 410-675-5999 or ZeMeanBean.com

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