Spike & Charlie's, 1225 Cathedral St., (410) 752-8144. Open Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch, Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner, brunch on Sundays. Major credit cards. Entrees: $16-$21. ** 1/2
If your out-of-town friends think Baltimore is a stodgy city, take them to the ultra-hip Spike & Charlie's Restaurant and Wine Bar. Sit them down in the bar, with its autumnal colors, contemporary art and gauzy curtains that serve as room dividers. Or take them back to the multilevel, minimalist dining room. No candles, no flowers, plain white table linen -- nothing to detract from the seriously decorative plates to come.
Treat them to a Tuesday-evening wine tasting at Spike & Charlie's, one of the better bargains around. One Tuesday's tasting might focus on chardonnays from just about everywhere, another the German wines of a particular importer. There's food, too. All for $10.
Explain to your friends that in spite of the name, this isn't a biker bar. Spike is Spike Gjerde, chef and co-owner with his brother Charlie. Their restaurant opened some five years ago, as much a club as a restaurant. Over the years more emphasis has been placed on the food and wine, the bar has become a lounge, the dining area has expanded. You can no longer eat outdoors during the summer season -- too many trucks pass by for some people's taste. But the brothers have painted the terrace stones a funky blue and yellow, so it's part of the view from the glassed-in dining room.
You never know with hip places: Sometimes the food is more style than substance. You expect to pay dearly for the aesthetics of each dish; good food is simply a bonus.
Not at Spike & Charlie's.
The evening we were there, chilled asparagus soup with red pepper puree had been substituted for the English pea soup with yellow pepper puree on the menu. Its looks were noteworthy: a yin and yang of cool green puree balanced with a curve of soft red, a thin white line or two of cream traced through them. Beautiful, and the two-toned flavors were remarkably pleasing.
A sea scallop and littleneck clam stew may sound pedestrian, but the reality was anything but. The expertly cooked shellfish was afloat in an aromatic broth, rich with tomatoes, sliced okra and chickpeas. A pretty chunk of fresh rockfish was an unexpected bonus, and jewel-green baby asparagus spears added bright color as well as flavor.
Not everything that came out of Spike & Charlie's kitchen reached the heights of these two dishes; but nothing we tried was an out-and-out failure except a green salad with cardboard tomato wedges, an unexceptional vinaigrette, pine nuts and one long dark hair.
This time of year Spike & Charlie's menu, surprisingly enough, offers nothing in the way of first courses but two soups, salads and pizzas that are appetizers only if you share.
The other soup (other than the chilled one) was Vidalia onion soup, with a thin, crisp fennel-seed crouton made of sourdough bread. It's a sophisticated relative of good old French onion soup, without the thick crust of melted cheese, but with plenty of dark, intense, faintly sweet flavor.
Pizzas at Spike & Charlie's are tres trendy. Ours had a thin, crisp crust that sported a topping of succulent chicken, homemade mozzarella and spinach.
A fresh-tasting ratatouille graced four al dente ravioli stuffed with goat cheese. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them, but their price of $16 seemed a bit steep.
Slices of marinated pork loin were laid on a pretty bed of diced sweet potato and red beans. I loved the accompaniments and the richly seasoned sauce, but the pork itself was a bit tough and short on flavor.
Spike & Charlie's has many pluses: lots of style, serious food, excellent homemade whole-wheat bread, an expertly chosen wine list. It also has some minuses, including -- this evening -- service with an attitude, a Caesar salad with a creamy dressing that didn't quite work, a lemon cream dessert whose lemon cream wasn't sweet enough, lemony enough or custardy enough.
In spite of that last, desserts in general are one of the restaurant's greatest strengths: fresh, imaginative, delicate and unique. Instead of the cherry clafouti with milk chocolate ice cream on the menu, the cakelike pudding was made with peaches that evening; it came with homemade cinnamon ice cream. It's hard to imagine cherries would have been any better. Chocolate polenta cake with ginger ice cream was a high-style version of a brownie. But the dessert we fought over was the banana tarte -- a round of puff pastry topped with banana slices, a drizzle of caramel, and the best fresh banana ice cream I've ever put in my mouth.