Like elephants, many Baltimore diners have long memories. They can name every restaurant that has come or gone since Truman was president, and can recall favorite meals at all of them. This elephantine capacity for misty water-colored memories is easily triggered by a visit to The Elephant in Mount Vernon.
Originally a residence built in the mid-19th century, the space housed the Brass Elephant in the 1970s, enjoying a three-decade run before going under in 2009. A short-lived nightspot followed.
Then along came Steven Rivelis and Linda Brown Rivelis, who remembered the old Brass Elephant with extra fondness, having been married there in the ’80s. They substantially refurbished the building and launched The Elephant in 2016.
Last fall, a new executive chef, Orlando Amaro, was brought in, which provided a good reason to stop by the place recently for dinner. If there were a few missteps the night we were there, the overall experience proved rewarding.
Unchanged since the restaurant’s opening is the striking beauty of the interior restoration. The creamy pink walls, Tiffany stained glass domes, delicate woodwork and the occasional elephant-head fixture exude a classy air.
That sophisticated look wasn’t exactly matched by the background music that greeted us. I certainly don’t expect to hear Brahms just because a place looks so Victorian. But while sitting beneath a grand chandelier and gently cutting into a beautifully seared piece of rockfish, the last thing I felt like hearing was: “You know you make me wanna shout, kick my heels up and shout.”
The vintage pop and soul soundtrack seemed much more fitting for the restaurant’s bar areas than for the dining room. By the same token, the laid-back service (and our genial server’s not-quite-tucked-in shirt) didn’t really mesh with the ambience, either; some plates or glasses were taken away too soon, others allowed to stay too long.
But once we adjusted to the casual approach, things proceeded nicely. OK, there was one other problem: a lobster bisque with an off-putting dark brown color, an almost spoiled smell and taste. That aberration was quickly replaced by an exceptionally refined and crisp Caesar salad.
The artichoke salad, dressed in lemon-truffle vinaigrette, was a flavorful gem, finished off with grissini, a delectable version of breadsticks.
We quickly devoured the Pimlico Hotel egg roll, an old local favorite recreated by The Elephant’s first executive chef, Andy Thomas. The excellent melding of pork, cabbage, bok choy and other goodies inside a flaky wonton wrapper was matched by an addictive sweet-and-sour sauce.
The entree plates, assembled with an artist’s eye for structure and balance, held sensible, nouvelle cuisine portions and delivered abundant flavor.
The spaghetti verde brought wild boar ragu, broccoli rabe and bits of egg yolk into engaging harmony with the pasta. The firm, moist rockfish would have satisfied by itself, but had the welcome addition of a lovely bed of seafood chowder featuring calamari and shrimp.
And resting on a lush risotto enlivened by sunchokes, cheese and pepper, was a tender, braised short rib given a most satisfying tingle from a garam masala rub.
For dessert, a finely crafted semifreddo — a mousse-y charmer made of chocolate and hazelnut — yielded considerable pleasure.
Our drinks that evening included well-blended cocktails and consistently successful choices from a compact wine list.
Speaking of alcohol, I’d be happy to spend time in the intimate first-floor bar, a welcome addition during the renovation. The wonderful second-floor marble bar, a popular spot in Brass Elephant days, looks better than ever and, together with stylish lounge spaces, contributes to the restaurant’s inviting ambience.
In the end, there is so much right about The Elephant that you can’t help but root for it to prosper, enlivening the neighborhood and generating many a pleasant memory for future diners.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 924 North Charles St., Mount Vernon
Contact: 443-447-7878, theelephantbaltimore.com
Dinner hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Upstairs lounge/bar: 5 p.m. to last call at midnight Thursday to Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $10 to $14; entrees $26 to $45.
Noise/TVs: Subdued noise level; no televisions in the dining area.
Service: Friendly, casual.
Parking: Valet, parking lot, street.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]