Puffins, 1000 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, (410) 486-8811. Open for lunch Mondays to Saturdays, for dinner every day. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4-$6; entrees, $11-$20.
When Puffins opened in the early '80s, you could get "health food" in only two kinds of Baltimore restaurants: Asian and other ethnic places where the cuisine depended heavily on grains and vegetables, and natural-foods cafes, which were good for carryout and lunches.
Puffins was unique in being a full-service restaurant for vegetarians and others interested in a healthy lifestyle. Everything was fresh, fat was kept to a minimum, and cooking was done without saturated fats, cholesterol or refined sugar. Owners Renee and Don Gorman weren't fanatics, though. You couldn't get red meat, but there were chicken and seafood dishes. And wine and beer were available.
And the whole restaurant was -- gasp -- no smoking. Unheard of a dozen years ago.
Nowadays there are many more choices for vegetarians. Restaurants in general are relying less on red meat and more on fresh vegetables. And even ones that specialize in steaks and chops are happy to create a vegetarian plate if you ask.
But Puffins has a variety of dishes you don't find elsewhere. The influences are global: Japanese, Italian, Mexican, the Middle East. But you don't have to eat ethnic here. You could, for instance, order chicken with roast potatoes.
You also get lots of atmosphere. The dining room has a California look to it, with its pink neon and zebra-striped wall sconces and funky art. But it's more of a serious restaurant and less of a cafe than I remember. The tables are set more formally than you might expect, with white linen and sparkling stemware.
Prices are higher than you might expect, also. I'm sure it's more expensive to produce food that's fresh and all natural; but you should know before you walk in that a spinach salad with feta is $8 and a dish of brown rice and vegetables will cost you $11.
Puffins is a pleasant place that fills a niche, but it isn't breaking any new ground with its natural-foods cuisine. I've always felt the kitchen does best when it isn't trying to mimic less healthful food (like the apple pie made with no cholesterol and no sugar with a whole-wheat crust).
The best of our first courses was "tofu loaf and assorted roasted vegetables served with tapenade." The tofu loaf, though, turned out to be sliced, grilled tofu and the tapenade was a sesame-ginger sauce. I'm not complaining about the substitutions. Tofu loaf sounded a little too fussy to me; and the zingy Oriental-style sauce was delicious with the bland bean curd and the grilled sweet peppers, sweet potatoes and squash.
A vegetarian-oriented restaurant's vegetables should be just about perfect, so I wasn't happy with the large, old mushrooms in the Puffins house salad. But the other roasted and grilled vegetables with the mixed greens were excellent, as was the sprightly mustard vinaigrette dressing.
Shrimp and broccoli in a vegetable herb sauce was too much for an appetizer, not quite enough for a main course, and the cooked-down vegetables weren't really necessary with the four fat, fresh shrimp and the broccoli florets. But it still worked better than the indifferent hummus with whole-wheat pita chips served with more grilled vegetables. (At this point I was beginning to feel I'd had enough grilled zucchini.)
It's somewhat startling to see a menu item like "flounder baked with a sauce of walnuts, lemon juice and margarine" -- especially when it costs $17. Most places don't brag about butter substitutes. Margarine may have been used in the flounder dish we tried, but at least the not-too-sweet orange sauce and banana slices disguised the fact. Puffins' seafood is beautifully fresh, and this was cooked to just the right degree of firm moistness. It's not sole with hollandaise and bananas, but it'll do.
The waitress recommended chicken in a crust of rolled oats and sesame seeds. The chicken was admirably moist and the crust admirably crisp, but my heart sank as I stared at the oatmeal on my chicken. The two just weren't appetizing together.
Oh well, the roast potatoes that came with both dinners were so hot and crisp-edged and soft in the middle they couldn't have been better.
The chicken and seafood dinners include soup or a small salad. The soup was tomato vegetable, with a pleasantly thin tomato base and some unexpected vegetables like dried green peas and chickpeas.
The pastas, pizzas and vegetarian dishes come a la carte. Brown rice stir-fried with snow peas, broccoli and other vegetables had a wonderful flavor and texture, plus the delicious crunch of pine nuts. But angel-hair pasta sauteed with grilled zucchini, eggplant and roasted peppers in tomato sauce was pretty uninteresting.
Desserts don't strike me as particularly healthful at Puffins, except perhaps for that apple pie with its sour filling and heavy crust. There's chocolate-chip cake with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and there's a hot fudge sundae. Both of them tasted as if they might have been made with more healthful substitutions -- by that I mean the ice cream didn't taste as good as ice cream usually does and so on. But I could be wrong.
You can get yogurt with fruit, but I'd like to see more use of fresh fruits and other desserts that don't make you yearn for the real thing. I'd rather eat a baked apple than a slice of apple pie that makes me crave my aunt's Winesap apple pie, which she made with plenty of sugar, yes, and real butter, yes, and a tender, delicate crust whose main ingredient was lard.