It's a sleepy little place, handy for sightseers to Ellicott City who are casting around for a beer and a sandwich, or a glass of wine and a plate of pasta. Perhaps my friends and I would have found more action there during tourist season, but we weren't sorry we went when we did.
A table by a window with a view on an alley looked made for watching snow fall. The window had small panes, like the ones with snow in them on Christmas cards, and at the center of it there was a wreath made of artificial flowers. A short distance away, a small bridge crossed Tiber Creek, and beyond and above rose a four-story stone structure whose windows were lit by electric candle. (In winter, even the railroad bridge down the street can look picturesque.)
Inside the restaurant, the mood was casual. A television over the bar was tuned to a sports program. In the downstairs dining room, the natural-wood walls were hung with posters having to do with aperitifs, wines and champagnes. Four of us sat at a snug table covered with a red cloth and set with simple plates.
A few of the suggestions on the menu sounded like Swiss or ski-country fare: baked brie ($6.50), brie and crab fondue ($7.95), tenderloin beef Katianna, grilled and topped with a brie fondue ($17.95). Essentially, though, there was an effort to cover all bases -- seafood, beef, veal, chicken and pasta.
We sampled some of everything but chicken, and shared a bottle of Wild Horse pinot noir ($21) that none of us found compelling. Some very long waits between courses may have affected our judgments, but by the evening's end we concluded found a restaurant for couples or businessmen who want to talk, or for tourists who want to sit down. People who pay real attention to what they eat might leave unenthusiastic. While the food was never bad, it was only sporadically interesting.
For appetizers, we ordered a cup of gumbo, which was the soup of the day ($3), a brie and crab fondue ($7.95) and an artichoke dip with bread ($7.50). The soup was hearty and thick with celery and beef, but, though some chili spicing gave a fast rush of heat, substantial flavors were missing. We expected melted brie with crab in the fondue, and that was what we got -- crab in a rich, gooey medium. Probably we could have scooped it up on a shard of bread, but I liked it best pure and gummy on a spoon. I'd imagined the artichoke dip might be made of the mashed center of fresh artichokes, but instead it was the lightly acidic inner leaves of preserved artichokes bound together by cheese.
We told our waitress we liked the bread. Holsum sour dough, she said, and added that she'd liked it, too, had bought some, tried it at home, and was disappointed. Back at work, they'd told her how to make it come around: Put the sliced bread in a 450-degree oven for five minutes to get a crackly surface and an inside that's hot and flavorful.
House salads consisted of fresh romaine and iceberg lettuce decorated with carrot and long, thin needles of red cabbage. For my taste, all four were burdened with too much strongly acidic dressing, but two of my companions who love vinegar liked them.
Three of our entrees were on the regular menu. All were pleasant without being exceptional. Veal Stephanie ($18.95) set a couple of firm, fresh shrimp, a few pieces of crab, and chips of oddly hard, bright-orange smoked salmon over sauteed veal medallions. The lemon sauce underneath the veal was as aggressively acidic as the salad dressings.
Our least successful entree was a plate of fettuccine Romano ($16.95) -- pasta, shrimp, scallops, crab and mussels coated with a bland, undersalted cheese and cream sauce. A New York strip steak ($17.50) was better, with lightly spiced edges, and a "cold horseradish sauce" that was plain, grated, raw horseradish root. Best was a special of mahi-mahi ($16.95). It was fresh, moist as poached fish, and agreeably combined with crab, fine-chopped carrots and a sweet, thin lacquer of sauce. Most entrees came with thin-grated carrots and a rather dull rice on the side.
One dessert was worth remembering, a creme brulee ($3.50), made in house. It consisted of a a beautifully creamy, sweet custard under a crackly, caramelized-sugar top. The other two both tasted old -- a triangle of lemon cheesecake ($3.75) with a rubbery layer of lemon curd, and a slice of Toll House pie ($3.25), partially redeemed by a component of vigorous, gritty chocolate.
We conjectured Sidestreets' kitchen might be stronger in tourist season, when more visitors would necessitate a more rapid turnover of food. Meanwhile, we'd enjoyed a satisfactory dinner and a window that made us sentimental. Next: McHenry's
8069-B Tiber Alley, Ellicott City,
Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11
a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Mondays
to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays until
10:30 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to
9 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.
to 2 p.m.
' ACCEPTS: AE, MC, V
FEATURES: Seafood, steak and
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No