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Bistro Rx settles in with risk-taking chef

The city is full of fine little neighborhood bistros, cafes and taverns like Bistro Rx. These are places that don't get much attention or win prizes but instead go quietly about the business of being a restaurant, a place where people come for good food and company and a place to unwind.

Bistro Rx opened in December 2010 in what had once been a pharmacy at East Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue. Two other restaurants, Parkside Restaurant and Three had preceded it, and neither lasted long. But Bistro Rx has established itself as a reliable amenity for the neighborhoods surrounding Patterson Park.

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Credit largely goes to owner Wayne Mahaffey for maintaining Bistro Rx so well, and for making it such a welcoming establishment. Mahaffey remains, as he was at the start, a hands-on presence, chatting amiably with customers at the long bar that occupies the back part of the main room. He has entrusted Mahaffey's Pub, his 13-year-old Canton tavern, to a management team.

The main room, sunlit with tables up front, is where most patrons gather, unless the weather is nice, in which case they're at the sidewalk tables on Linwood Avenue, where you can hear the tennis balls being swatted in Patterson Park. This is one of very few outdoor seating areas around Patterson Park, a 137-acre gem in the heart of the city, and a trip to Bistro Rx would be worth it just for the purpose of lounging. For more intimate dining, there is a quiet and comfortable upper-level, brick-walled dining room.

Mahaffey has also invested in a fine chef, Wilbur Cox, formerly the sous chef of B&O Brasserie and executive chef of Wine Market Bistro. Cox joined Bistro Rx in January, and his current menu is a smart hybrid of quiet weeknight fare such as sandwiches and flatbreads and more expressive, personal, chef-driven cuisine. Restaurant dining has been shifting toward the plain and the understated, away from the kind of food Cox revels in, which is meant to engage, delight and even challenge.

On the plate, this means the Portuguese octopus entree had a fennel confit, a kalamata olive tapenade and a pepper jam and purees of garlic and preserved lemon, all spread out in swirls and whirls beneath the tender roasted piece of octopus, which had good smoked flavor. And it means that a briny, oven-roasted quail was served with an intriguing combination of smoked blueberry relish, black garlic and popcorn grits, a variation of the classic hominy made with popcorn kernels.

These are dishes from the heart, and there's something truly compelling about their edginess. Still, we found ourselves taking more to dishes with less going on, like an appetizer of ricotta dumplings, which were served with an early summer bounty of fiddlehead ferns, peas, hen-of-the-wood mushrooms and ramp pesto. Likewise, we enjoyed the basic pleasures in an entree portion of homemade ravioli filled with smoked shrimp that was served with asparagus, truffle and English pea butter.

Our favorite dish was a short rib special, which had the fewest ingredients of all, just tender short rib and creamed corn, gently scented with vanilla.

Excess worked best with a grouper ceviche, where the profusion of ingredients — lime curd, jalapeno relish, radish and an avocado "marble" — felt essential. It worked, too, at dessert time, when we were in the mood for something fanciful, such as a salted chocolate bar with dulce de leche ice cream, honey meringue and lime curd, or homemade cheesecake topped with pineapple and flavored with sriracha. Our waiter promised we would like the odd combination of spicy and sweet flavors on the cheesecake, and he was right.

We enjoyed ourselves at Bistro Rx. The wine list is approachable, with affordable glass pours and bottles of popular Australian, South American and South African wines. And the seven rotating beer taps are in the custody of a staff that cares about good beer.

Mostly, we appreciated the level of care and effort. If our chief concern was with the kitchen's tendency toward excess, of having perhaps one or two more things on a plate than was necessary, that's not a deal-breaker. We're all for risk-taking. The key ingredient, which Bistro Rx absolutely provides, is a hospitable environment for diners and staff to grow and learn together.

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