I didn't think any restaurant could survive where people once gave blood, in the old Red Cross building at 27th and North Charles streets. Chez Charles couldn't do it. Neither could Hacha's Deep Sea Grille. But Benny's is proving me wrong.
Benny is Benny Gordon, owner and chef of the French restaurant 2110 a few blocks south on North Charles. What's making his new venture work is that it's a combination restaurant and jazz club, offering a Cajun-oriented buffet and live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with more ambitious plans in the wings. Folks are friendly, and the service is good.
The all-you-can-eat buffet costs $13.95 (plus a $5 cover charge after 8 p.m. for the live music). There's also a small menu of six light-fare items -- such as baked oysters, spinach salad and Cajun hot wings -- for those of us who can't do justice to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Smart idea.
Unfortunately, the couple of dishes we tried from the a la carte menu were dreadful. If we'd only had the buffet, this restaurant would have gotten three stars.
Both the Louisiana crab and the clams Orleans were almost too salty to eat. The big lumps of crab were gorgeous, but they were not only too salty but quite spicy. Their sherry cream sauce was overly thick and the puff pastry shell was tough. The clams were salty and smelled a little off. Ironically, the week before I had had dinner at 2110 and eaten possibly the best baked clams of my life there.
So next time I would stick to the buffet at Benny's. It's not huge, but it has the kind of food that's hard to find elsewhere in Baltimore. There were chicken legs, tender and spiced with fire. Tiny shrimp and even smaller scallops were bathed in a pleasing cream sauce. The meatballs had run out and we were having dessert when beef tips arrived in their place, so we didn't get to try them. But they looked good. (On the weekend there may also be carved beef.)
But what I loved -- and went back for seconds of -- were the well-seasoned cabbage and delicious kidney beans with slices of Louisiana sausage, to be eaten with squares of crumbly, cake-like corn bread. Forget the tired-looking, overseasoned zucchini.
The buffet includes a good tossed salad and a couple of soups. The Thursday we were there, the soups were a decent corn chowder and Louisiana crab soup, which seems to have more crab than the standard Maryland crab soup and a lot more sugar.
Desserts are something of an afterthought. You have to hunt for the plates of cake hidden behind the salad bowl and balanced near the beef tips. According to our waiter, when one selection runs out the kitchen pulls another cake from the freezer.
The carrot cake was pretty good, but the chocolate and pound cakes that appeared as we left looked even better. So keep checking that table if you don't see what you want the first time.
Where: 2701 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; for dinner 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards
Features: Cajun-style food
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 366-7779
Prices: Buffet, $13.95