For a restaurant with a nice little name, the Art Gallery Cafe looks uninviting from the outside. There's not much in the way of signage except for a neon open. You can't see anything if you try to peer in the windows. Four of us stood outside on the sidewalk for a few minutes trying to decide if this was really it, then finally tugged on the door with the open sign. It was locked. The main door was farther down the block.
When we walked in, we saw there was a small dining room to the left with a private party. Every head turned toward us, but nobody said anything. On the right was another small dining room. It was empty. No maitre d', or for that matter any employee, was in sight. We followed the loud music to the top of a short flight of stairs. Peering around a partition, we found the main dining room and art gallery. (Well, the paintings on the walls are for sale and add a lot of color to the room, but the dominant decoration is the huge flat-screen TVs.) At the back of the room was an empty stage. Several of the tables, but not all, were filled; just about everybody was smoking.
We must have looked as out of place as we felt, but then Alex appeared and saved the day. He looked about 15, and turned out to be both host and a waiter. There was a bit of a language problem, but he couldn't have been more welcoming. When he realized we were hoping for a no-smoking section (a joke here), he took us upstairs to an empty private dining room. This was a nicely appointed room (if you ignored the door taken off its hinges and leaning against a wall) and we were happy not to have to eat with the TVs and smokers. So all was well.
The Art Gallery Cafe, we were told when we called, is a Russian and French restaurant, but I didn't see much French food on the menu. BYOV -- bring your own vodka -- to go with the blini and caviar. The Art Gallery Cafe doesn't have a liquor license.
Alex appeared with another friendly young man about his age and said, "I'm Alex and he's Alex. We'll be your waiters." That certainly made things easier. We asked one of the Alexes to recommend four plates from the long list of hot and cold appetizers, which we would share. They turned out to be the highlights of the meal. The way to go here is to bring a bottle of wine (or vodka) and keep ordering appetizers tapas-style till you've had enough. Where we went astray was ordering entrees.
Shredded lettuce and seaweed were tossed with bright red dots of caviar, orange-edged slivers of sea legs and a creamy dressing. This was about as close to a vegetable as we got all evening, and it was a good one. Most of the rest of the time we were in carb heaven, supplemented with a little sour cream. So, for instance, there were tender little dumplings stuffed with ground veal and chicken, sprinkled lavishly with dill and served with sour cream. There was white bread and brown bread and butter to go with them. There were blini with fat pearls of caviar. There were Georgian pastries made from puff pastry stuffed with cheese. We should have stopped while we were ahead.
The Art Gallery Cafe's tuna steak was nice and fresh but cooked beyond well done. Even the pungent sauce on the side couldn't resurrect it. It came with an enormous pile of mashed potatoes and pickled cabbage. The beef stroganoff was a little short on beef but did have a wonderful creamy sauce and lots of mushrooms. This, too, came with mashed potatoes and pickled cabbage.
One of the Alexes recommended the rack of lamb, which turned out to be four small rib chops with a pungent, too strong flavor. Their saving grace was lots more of the stroganoff sauce and excellent french fries sprinkled with dill. (A fine variation on the french fries and ketchup theme.)
Our table was divided over the chicken kabob. I liked the fact it wasn't overcooked, and I loved the tart-sweet relish that came on the side. Others weren't so enthusiastic. Maybe it was the smothering layer of raw onion slices. Luckily there were more french fries and dill.
Desserts aren't a big item here, at least on a weeknight. The choice was cake imported from New York or another cake imported from New York -- more torte than cake, a multi-layer affair in chocolate-vanilla or fruit, both topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
Alex & Alex were so nice I would have given them a whopping tip, but as it tells you on the menu, a 15 percent service charge is added automatically. You can always leave more.
The size of the check will surprise you. It may not be the most exciting meal you've ever eaten, or the least doughy, but you won't be paying much for it either. And if you stick to the Russian specialties, as opposed to the "French" dishes, which I guess the tuna and the lamb fall under, you could have a satisfying meal.
Art Gallery Cafe
Where: 1004 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$12.95; Entrees: $6.95-$18.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Art Gallery Cafe