There could be worse names for a fine restaurant than the Tasting Room, but one doesn't immediately spring to mind. It sounds like a cross between a tapas bar and a booth at a fancy food show. Actually, I don't know what it sounds like, except not what it is: a contemporary bistro that offers civilized, often wonderful food and a personable wine list.
This is the kind of place you'd love to have in your city; but except for the food, I wouldn't put it in the destination restaurant category. Situated on a corner in downtown Frederick, the Tasting Room -- still in its first year of existence -- has a shiny new feel. It's one big room with lots of glass, bare floors, pale yellow walls and stage-set touches like food definitions written on transparent panels.
The TV screens over the concrete bar seem to be there more as moving art than anything else. And there is music, of course. The look works, but the problems are the usual ones with post-millennium bistros. When it's crowded, and my guess is that the Tasting Room usually is, it's noisy. Then, too, people interested in serious food and wine (and paying for same) aren't always happy perching on wooden chairs, no matter how well they fit into the minimalist style.
The service is excellent, but hampered by the logistics of the place. For instance, our waiter wanted to serve me from the right, but to do so he practically had to stand in the window; his presence there kept startling me. I should have asked him just to hand the plates over my husband.
Ah, but the food. While flavors are bold -- most often of char-grilling, lemon and garlic -- simplicity is the order of the day. This lets fresh, end-of-summer ingredients shine. So, for instance, the signature lobster chowder is simply unthickened cream, corn, fat little nuggets of lobster meat, tiny cubes of potato and a splash of sherry. I say "simply"; that doesn't convey its simultaneous delicacy and decadence.
This is contemporary Ameri-can cooking at its best, casual and refined. The presentation is also casual, which fits with the mood of the times. Who needs food that looks overly fussed with when you're eating in a bistro? The sauteed greens of the day are typical: deep green baby spinach leaves, just heated through, sauteed with olive oil, garlic and lemon and served in a shallow white bowl. The beauty of the dish is its main ingredient.
There are no eyebrow-raising fusion creations here. Foreign accents enhance rather than dominate. Enormous shrimp were coated in panko (Japanese bread crumbs) before being fried, which gave them a marvelous crust. Grilled scallops, a special, were beguiling on their bed of diced summer vegetables. The Tasting Room bakes its own good bread; grilled, it made a wonderful base for a bruschetta trio of fresh tomato salsa, marinated zucchini and roasted peppers.
Deep red, flavorful tomatoes make their appearance fre-quently on the Tasting Room's summer menu. Chopped and paired with arugula, they were the basis for a refined salad that balanced the rich saffron risotto under the smallish (by restaurant standards) but meaty veal chop. Tomatoes created a summery sauce for a soft crab special with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.
Three thin-cut pork chops were remarkably tender, their roasted peach compote worth applauding. A swordfish steak wasn't thick either, but the white, fresh fish was very fine, playing off flavors of char, lemon, olive oil and garlic. The scalloped potatoes with it could not be resisted by anyone.
Desserts won't let you down. There's a mousse-like chocolate decadence with creme anglaise, an individually baked warm peach cobbler with just the right amount of ice cream (you won't feel like you've overeaten if you finish it all), homemade cannoli and a gloriously creamy cheesecake with a fresh strawberry sauce.
If you were feeling grumpy, you could find a few things to fault, most notably that flavors are sometimes a bit too bold -- a little too much salt, an over- assertive char, a very lemony marinade. Still, give the Tasting Room its due. To find food this good across the board at these prices is unusual.
The Tasting Room
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 101 N. Market St., Frederick
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$10.95; main courses, $14.95-$27.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*