Who would have thought that a professional photographer and a cyclist could open a new restaurant every bit as good as any that's arrived on the Baltimore scene lately?
The photographer is Deborah Mazzolini, and we have her artistic sensibilities to thank for Bicycle's stylish minimalist rooms, painted in citrusy colors of orange, lemon and lime. The cyclist is London-born chef Barry Rumsey, who runs the kitchen and whose hobby inspired the bistro's name.
Bicycle is a chic little storefront in a block of south Baltimore that hasn't quite gotten gentrified yet. Its lime-green exterior beckons you in from down the street. Once inside, you step into a small dining room and open kitchen in front, then back into another small dining room behind it, and finally onto a charming, flowery patio out the back door. Alas, the handsome bare floors, the silvery metal-laminate tables, the lack of any fabric or soundproofing whatsoever and the proximity of the open kitchen mean that the noise can be deafening -- especially when every table is filled. Your eyes will love this place. Your ears won't.
But then again, your taste buds will. Rumsey's menu has French, South American and Asian accents; the dishes are so much a harmonious whole you could hardly call this fusion cuisine--which to me, paradoxically, always implies that things aren't quite fused, so the juxtaposition of ingredients startles as well as delights.
The Bicycle has one of those menus where every dish sounds better than the last. Deciding becomes difficult. Shall I have the lobster ravioli or the herb-roasted chicken with preserved lemons? The Thai chicken sticks or the quesadilla with crab, avocado and roasted corn? I want to order them all.
For the most part, the food fulfills its promise. No, not everything is perfect. Spicy dishes are fiery, more so than the subtlety of the other ingredients sometimes deserves. That wasn't true, say, of the Thai chicken sticks. With those we expected the peanut sauce to be spicy, and indeed it was. But you wouldn't necessarily expect heat with the poetically named red pepper bisque with blue crab; I assumed the peppers were sweet red peppers. The blush-colored soup was wonderfully creamy and flavorful with nice lumps of crab; but its fire builds up as you eat it, so that pretty soon that's all you think about. Huge curried shrimp were nestled in a creamy sauce in which bits of mango sounded a fruity note. But we had to use the accompanying jasmine rice to douse the fire rather than enjoying it for its own sake.
If you love fiery dishes, though, you won't find much to complain about here -- at least as far as the food and service are concerned. (When the place gets crowded, you may have a wait; but the servers are amiable and clearly working hard.)
Chef Rumsey coats sublimely fresh sea bass with crisp slices of yuca -- a potato-like root vegetable -- and edges it delicately with a creamy sauce of sweet corn. He grills vegetable kebabs and brings these everyday chunks of peppers, squash and the like to sublime heights with a zingy lemon-tahini sauce. The vegetables' bed of couscous is studded prettily with baby chickpeas and split peas.
If you crave something more extravagant, hope that the lobster saute is on the specials menu. The large snowy pieces of lobster meat are extracted from the shell for you, sauteed in a little white wine and tarragon and served on a bed of creamy cheese grits. And Rumsey's plates are pretty as a picture: The lobster, for instance, is engagingly decorated with grape tomatoes and orange segments.
In fact, such attention is paid to decoration you might think these dishes have been created to be looked at, that flavor is secondary. Not so. A "diver sea scallop beggars purse" appetizer was so enchanting I hated to stick a fork into it, but I was glad I had. Crisp phyllo was shaped into a little bundle tied at the top and placed on a pool of beurre blanc. Inside were succulent discs of scallops, fresh spinach and goat cheese.
Other first courses are simpler but just as appealing. Slices of grilled squid, for instance, had just an edge of char and were balanced by a seductive green sauce sparked with cilantro.
Desserts are as fine as the rest of the food. This time of year lots of fresh summer fruit is used. A freeform pastry shell is filled with a colorful dice of berries, kiwi and mango, then finished off with citrusy custard and freshly whipped cream. Or you might choose a shortcake with cream and fresh berries, or simply the fresh fruit selection of the day. Even the tapioca pudding, not a favorite of mine, is improved with more of that good diced fruit.
And chocolate lovers, don't despair. For you there are miniature cream puffs (a bit too crisp for my taste) filled with a sensuous rum-flavored chocolate mousse.
All in all, the Bicycle is a happy addition to Baltimore's growing list of chic little bistros with excellent food. And one other plus: You can have fun experimenting with the wine list's "eighteen @ eighteen," 18 decent wines priced at $18. It's a bit gimmicky, but more serious wine lovers will find plenty else on the wine list to enjoy.
Food: *** 1/2
Where: 1444 S. Light St.
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$9; main courses, $12-$22
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *