A GHOST who pushes people down stairs is not the ideal marketing strategy for a restaurant. On the other hand, everyone loves a ghost story. So Joy Martin may be crazy like a fox by proclaiming that Zodiac, the funky eatery she opened six years ago next to the Club Charles, is Baltimore's only haunted restaurant.
"There used to be a speakeasy here, and he was the owner," Martin says of the specter. "He's a dapper guy in a white linen suit. He does evil things. He pushed me down the steps once face first, and I broke my wrist. The History Channel came about a year ago, and he locked one of the crew members in the bathroom."
The peevish ghost is the only thing dead about Zodiac. On a recent weekend night, the place crackled with life as people piled in from the Everyman and Charles theaters across the street to nosh on Cajun-influenced food.
Turquoise banquettes, black-and-white movie stills and a fully illuminated bar made us feel as though we'd stepped inside Edward Hopper's The Nighthawks.
While location certainly brings in customers, some credit belongs to Christina Miller, the new chef who trained under celeb-chef Emeril in New Orleans. Every entree we tried reflected a real understanding of the culinary arts.
The herb-crusted salmon in Creole Dijon sauce (a dinner special) merited four stars. The not-too-fishy-tasting slab of salmon provided the ideal backdrop for the velvety, slightly spicy mustard sauce. Sides of sour-cream-parsley smashed potatoes and crunchy green beans rounded the dish out perfectly.
The Zodiac pizza was a hit, too. It featured a thin, chewy crust layered with peppery, fruity tomato sauce, crumbled andouille sausage, sweet caramelized onions, smoked mozzarella (that actually tasted smoky) and a fragrant aftertaste of basil. (The menu listed chicken as an ingredient, but, since ours had none, we figured the ghost had nabbed it.)
A judicious dose of spice jazzed up a wild-mushroom lasagna nicely without overpowering it. The barbecue shrimp appetizer was also nicely spiced, and was well paired with a dollop of deliciously sweet and mild cole slaw.
Try as we did to like the smashed potato appetizer with mushroom confit, we just couldn't. Maybe it was because the three new potatoes looked more like a side dish. Maybe it was because the portion was too hefty to be appetizing. Or perhaps it was because we waited too long for it; our server took a little time to kick into gear.
Zodiac's house salad suffered a size problem, too; the pile of greens spilled onto the table, making eating a messy affair.
Hefty portions turned out to be assets at dessert time. Three of us fought over a huge, homemade, chewy fudge brownie still hot enough from the oven to melt a topping of vanilla ice cream. We then turned our forks to a tall piece of creamy tiramisu cheesecake.
After those two, we were in no position to do justice to a wedge of rich peanut butter pie. So, we left most of it on the plate, in hopes that it would sweeten the disposition of Zodiac's ghost and save some poor soul from tumbling down the stairs.
1726 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open for dinner Wednesdays to Sundays and for Sunday brunch
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: Appetizers $4 to $8; entrees $7 to $16
Food: *** 1/2
Atmosphere: *** 1/2