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Mad River brings the outdoors inside


Mad River, the bar and restaurant, is named for Vermont's Mad River Valley, a rough and tumble mecca for skiing, white-water rafting and other outdoor activities. Maybe you've seen the "Ski it if you can" bumper stickers for Mad River Glen on the bumper of a beat-up Volvo near you.

Of course, the restaurant, in the heart of urban Federal Hill, has nothing to do with sports or the great outdoors. Its other two locations are in Manhattan and Albany, N.Y., also far from mountains and rushing rivers.

But that doesn't stop the small chain from borrowing the outdoorsy themes of its namesake. Inside the cavernous space, once a bank, a real canoe is suspended from the ceiling, and real skis and sleds are fastened to the walls.

It's all about image. You don't have to shoot rapids or ski black diamond trails to be cool - just eat at Mad River. And that image seems to be having its desired effect. On a recent Saturday night, the place was swarming with attractive patrons. Though many were just there for the draft beers and appletinis, most of the white-clothed tables were occupied.

The theme may be adventure, but the menu mainly sticks to tried-and-true bar food like burgers and wings, with ambition stretching as far as stir-fries and fajitas. Portions were generous, and prices were remarkably low.

One of the best items was the harbour cakes, three creamy pingpong-sized balls loaded with lump crab meat and served with a spicy chipotle sauce. The cakes were arranged around a mound of vegetables, mostly sugar snap peas, carrots and onions, nicely seasoned but unfortunately cooked past their prime, and the whole thing was sprinkled with parsley for an attractive presentation.

The stir-fry also looked nice, with the chicken and vegetables surrounding a large timbale of rice. The food was tasty, if a little salty, but the vegetables were limp, and the dish was not as saucy as I would have liked.

Six varieties of burger were on the menu, and patrons can choose from a variety of toppings, including guacamole, Canadian bacon and Texas chili, to create their own. The turkey burger was large and tasty (for a turkey burger), but, like all the burgers, it was served on an English muffin that was simply too small and wimpy for the job.

Burgers and sandwiches came with two sides. The best were the sweet, fat onion rings. Sweet potato fries were cut thin and had nice flavor but were too limp to be fabulous. And the side salad was your basic uninspired mix of lettuce, tomato and cucumber.

Our server seemed attentive enough, and food arrived in a timely manner, but she failed to mention any specials. I later learned from one of the owners, Eric Tucker, that specials are offered each night. He faxed me a typical list, which included stuffed shrimp, a portobello mushroom sandwich and a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, mushroom and cheese.

Appetizers, though, don't stray far beyond the classics. My favorite was a spinach artichoke dip chunky with vegetables and rich with parmesan flavor. It was served with a generous pile of red, blue and yellow tortilla chips. The grilled chicken skewers were tasty, though a touch too salty and dry, and they came with an overly sweet hoisin sauce. And the "fiery fried calamari" were not fiery at all, though they were tender enough.

We were informed that desserts were not yet being offered, though they would be on the menu soon. A few days later, Tucker said cakes and brownies are now being offered.

I have to mention the bathrooms at Mad River. They were at the end of a long corridor and were freezing cold. The women's room was unattractive and had no paper towels. Maybe it was supposed to create the feeling of an outdoor adventure.

Mad River Bar and Grille

Where: 1110 S. Charles St.

Call: 410-727-2300

Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday

Credit cards: MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $7-$9, entrees $7-$10

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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