Forget the free peanuts from the space's former days as Midtown Yacht Club and Midtown BBQ & Brew. The shells on the floor are gone. After all, they would look out of place on the new restaurant's polished wood floors. Flavor in Mount Vernon is much more sophisticated than that.
The stylish, modern bistro, run by executive chef Julia Belton and her wife, Vanna, incorporates the old — vintage red-brick wall, wainscoting and carved wood fireplace — with the new. A simple white-and-gray color scheme creates an airy feeling in the narrow room, fronted by a bar with a dining area in the rear. The white faux-leather chairs, set around dark wood tables, are as plush as they look.
We walked into Flavor at the tail end of a boisterous happy hour. The loud conversations prevented our own discourse at first, but the noise quickly died down as the imbibers moved on to other evening endeavors.
The menu focuses on shareable small plates and creative cocktails such as peach-strawberry daiquiris made from local fruit and lemosas, a citrusy twist on the familiar champagne drink. The wine list features mostly California and Italian offerings with a nod to other regions. Several draft and bottled beers are available.
The relaxed surroundings are a great way to end a workday or start a weekend. Our attentive server quickly brought us a complimentary tray of pickled cabbage, which was more delicious than it might sound. When we devoured the contents, he offered to bring another.
But we were ready for our first dishes by then. The spicy Buffalo roasted cauliflower had all the zing of the namesake chicken wings but with the kick of orange-sauced florets dotted with crumbled Gorgonzola.
There are purists who don't want anyone to mess with the basic recipe for mac and cheese. Belton, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, isn't one of those. And we're glad she isn't. Otherwise, we'd miss out on her mini-casserole of macaroni thick with Gruyere and cheddar cheeses and glossed with pungent white truffle oil.
The roasted shrimp bisque was another success with sherry and cream enriching the lush broth. The charcuterie board isn't as sumptuous as some we've had, but these are small plates, we reminded ourselves. The dish centered on folds of excellent salami and prosciutto with a small rectangle of brie and rings of pickled red onions surrounded by crispy crostini.
Roasted beet salads keep showing up on menus. In this case, the garnet root vegetable paired well with peppery arugula studded with chevre made from the milk of "happy goats" at Charlottetown Farm in Freeland and tossed with white balsamic vinaigrette.
Our meal did not follow a typical appetizer-entree format. The kitchen follows the lead of most tapas restaurants, delivering dishes as they are prepared. As varied as each of our choices were, the flavors melded in a way that didn't matter if the meat came before the soup.
The three lamb chops, seasoned with rosemary, thyme and garlic, arrived early on. Stacked like a winning card hand, the tender chops rested on a puddle of mellow roasted cauliflower puree. The beer-braised pork tacos were packed with succulent shreds of meat, lime coleslaw and pickled red onions in soft flour tortillas. You can order two or three. The former would have been fine. We ended up taking a third one home for a nibble the next day.
Two beef sliders, made with meat from Stoney Point Farm Market in nearby Littlestown, Pa., were fat, juicy patties layered with cheddar, lettuce, house-made pickles and a tangy roasted garlic aioli. Dense potato rolls housed the mini burgers for another delicious, filling portion.
One of the biggest surprises was the grilled calamari, only because we didn't pay attention to the "over grilled romaine" in the menu description. In this preparation, the slightly charred rings of sweet squid were lost in a cascade of tinged lettuce and didn't contribute anything noticeable to the salad.
Two desserts were available on our visit. The brownie pudding wasn't a typical pudding in a bowl. The three moist brownies were distinct squares showered with powdered sugar and laced with chocolate sauce. They were everything the cake-like favorite should be. We gobbled them up. A warm cinnamon bun was gooey and powerfully fragrant. It was a feel-good finish to a meal redolent with distinctive flavors.
The owners did not want to be pigeonholed into any specific type of cuisine for their restaurant. "American cooking is a melting pot," Vanna Belton said. "The name Flavor allows us to change the menu."
The appropriately named bistro is a welcome addition to the popular cultural district and one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Better to leave the peanuts to the area squirrels than to its dining establishments.
Where: 15 E. Centre St., Mount Vernon
Contact: 443-563-2279, flavorbaltimore.com
Open: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday brunch
Prices: Snacks, $8 to $11; small plates, $6 to $18.
Food: New American small plates
Noise/TVs: Very loud during happy hour, quiets considerably when it ends at 7 p.m.; two TVs at the bar.
Service: Friendly and professional
Parking: Metered street parking
Special diets: Can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
[Key: Superlative: ¿¿¿¿¿; Excellent: ¿¿¿¿; Very good: ¿¿¿; Good: ¿¿; Promising: ¿.]