McCafferty's, 1501 Sulgrave Ave., (410) 664-2200. Open Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch, Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$6.50; entrees, $12.95-$19.95.
You should go to McCafferty's, the restaurant that opened where the Cafe des Artistes used to be, for one reason: its beef. The Davis family (Brian Davis is one of the owners) raises prime beef on its ranch in Montana.
The Davises are also in the interstate transportation business, which eliminates all sorts of middlemen. And the beef is aged right there at the restaurant. Those who remember the Cafe des Artistes' elegant rooms may be startled to find a meat locker in the foyer, but true carnivores will love it.
We had a New York strip steak called the Coach's Pick. (Yes, the restaurant is named after the former coach of the Colts.) This was a huge cut, almost sizzling as it arrived at the table, with that wonderful aroma of slightly charred meat and fat that starts you salivating before you cut into it. And when you do cut into it, with a steak knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee, you'll find beef that's well marbled, richly flavorful and cooked just as ordered.
If New York strip isn't your cut, you can choose a fillet or Delmonico or beef brochette. And prime rib is frequently a special. For a dollar extra you can choose from eight different sauces such as bearnaise and red bell pepper cream, and butters such as garlic or fresh herb to complement any of the entrees.
Baltimoreans have already discovered McCafferty's; it was packed the night we were there. If you can imagine the chic Cafe des Artistes suddenly combined with a sports bar, you have a pretty good idea of what the new restaurant is like. It has Keno. It has ESPN on the TV at the bar. It has everybody trying to talk over everybody else, so it has serious noise. Sports memorabilia are everywhere, and caricatures line the walls. Yet McCafferty's is a restaurant that clearly cares about food.
It's a concept that seemingly can't fail, but there is one hitch. TC Nothing besides the steak was as good as it should have been. Start with the bread: soft, cold little rolls that should have been warm, chewy and crisp-crusted. Or the nibbles on the table -- pickled cucumber slices and what must be the restaurant's own beef jerky, neither of which is very good.
Poached oysters in puff pastry surrounded by shrimp sauce were beautiful to look at, but the oysters tasted old and tough; and the appetizer, which should have been hot, was served at room temperature. The soup of the day was steaming hot, and I loved the combination of barley, spinach and mushrooms in a rich chicken and veal stock, but no one had bothered to taste it after it had been seasoned. It was too peppery to eat. A "Victory Salad" had all sorts of good, fresh greens; but the basil vinaigrette was too sharply vinegary.
Besides beef, McCafferty's limits itself to a few seafood dishes, a couple of lambs and "free range" chicken. (To digress a moment, the owners do have an admirable social consciousness. Besides serving additive-free meat, they plan to distribute 2 tons of beef and lamb a month to charities in the community.)
We ordered a double loin lamb chop and got three small chops, which seemed like a fair exchange. This is good lamb, cooked as ordered, although not quite as remarkable as the beef. What I wasn't wild about was the green peppercorn sauce. It should have been dark and rich but seemed pallid to me -- peppery and nothing much else. Better choices were the bearnaise we had with the beef and a smooth red bell pepper cream ordered with our seafood.
The seafood was a tuna fillet, not as fresh as I've ever tasted and overcooked so it was no longer moist. With it and all entrees came sugar snap peas with grated carrots, a fine combination except that they were seasoned with garlic. (The whole point of sugar snap peas is their fresh, sweet flavor.)
Potatoes and other starches are extra. "Country mashed potatoes" are the lumpy kind, with onion and bits of skin mashed in -- a little too much onion for my taste, but that's a personal preference. The wild rice mixture would have been good if it had been hot.
I figured the kitchen would pay as little attention to desserts as it had to everything but the meat. I was wrong. A chocolate mousse cake was light but deeply chocolate, lovingly decorated with strawberry puree laced with chocolate. Apple tart turned out to be a lusciously rich almond tart covered with a thin layer of apple slices. Rudolph's flan was creamy smooth and flavored with just a bit of rum. I recommend any of them.
When we asked our waitress who Rudolph was she said, "I don't know -- everybody asks that." That's the kind of response that puts McCafferty's service into the warm and friendly category rather than notably professional. (You'd think she would have found out.) But she was attentive, didn't spill anything, and if we had a wait or two for our courses and some of our dishes were cold, I imagine that was the fault of the busy kitchen rather than hers.
% Next: The Eager House