2004 dining: Beyond the creme brulee, bright new tastes


The more things change, the more things stay the same. And in 2004, Baltimore's restaurant scene didn't even change that much. For every hip new Blue Sea Grill or Taste that opened this year, it felt like there were three new bars or pubs serving the usual fried calamari, crab dip and quesadillas.

You still had to wait two or three weeks to get a prime-time Saturday night reservation at Baltimore's favorite Spanish restaurant, Tio Pepe. This is a quintessential mid-century special-occasion establishment, with rich food in huge portions.

The No. 1 question I got this year from the public was, as it is every year: Where do I go for the best crab cake?

Steak seems to be not only Baltimore's but America's top splurge food.

I have eaten creme brulee to the point where I can no longer look at creme brulee.

I now expect service to be pretty amateurish, as it has been for the past several years. One new owner tried to explain it this way: Why should competent waiters at successful establishments leave to take a new job at a place that might not be around in a year?

And yet, the more things stay the same, the more they change. Have you noticed how many sushi bars and Japanese steakhouses have opened recently? In fact, amazingly, the top-rated area restaurant for food in the 2005 Zagat Survey was Columbia's Sushi Sono. (It shared that honor with Charleston in Baltimore.)

And wine bars. If this was the year of anything, it was the year of the wine bar, the most notable opening being the Wine Market in Locust Point. (I haven't been to the new Metropolitan Coffeehouse & Winebar in Federal Hill yet.)

In 2004, I ate at not one but two four-star restaurants. (Last year there was none.) The first, to the horror of some readers, was a barbecue joint on Harford Road, Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbecue. But my philosophy is if it does an excellent job of doing what it sets out to do (in this case, smoke meat the old-fashioned way), it doesn't have to be a white tablecloth restaurant to deserve kudos.

My other four-star establishment, Julia's, with its fine New American cuisine, was less surprising. Unfortunately, it's in Centreville, an hour and a half away from Baltimore -- farther than most of us want to drive for dinner.

Which leads me to another trend: Some of the most imaginative food in the state is being served on the other side of the Bay Bridge. The Eastern Shore has customers who are sophisticated and affluent enough to support the work of some very fine chefs.

Here in Baltimore, the buzz centers on restaurants that haven't been open long enough for me to review as of this writing. The owners of Charleston and Petit Louis have a new tapas bar, Pazo, that's supposed to be spectacular -- at least in its design. Very New York, as people are fond of saying. I haven't heard much about the food yet. And the new True in the Admiral Fell Inn was too swamped to take reservations when I called.

I started off the year grumpy: Too many new bars and too much bar food. I'm ending it looking forward to eating at Pazo; True; the newly opened Thai restaurant in Canton, Talay; and the new tropical cuisine restaurant, 23rd Degree, where Spike & Charlie's used to be.

In between lay meals at some 40 area restaurants, many of them quite good. Besides the four-star places mentioned above, I've been recommending the Wine Market, Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton, and the Bonefish Grill in Owings Mills.

And now -- ta-da -- it's time for my annual awards, based on the restaurants I visited this year. Let's start with those bars.

Best pub grub 2004-style (runner up): The Red Star's grilled calamari, tuna carpaccio and "crazy-eyed" shrimp.

Best pub grub 2004-style (winner): Cream of mushroom soup, braised lamb shank and cornmeal-crusted catfish at Simon's of Butcher Hill.

The Elizabeth D. Large Sinkhole Award: First the Greek restaurant Opa! disappears without a trace, then Ristorante Due Isole opens and closes in less than a year in the same space (1911 Aliceanna St.). Talay is there now; I've heard good things about it and I wish it luck.

Best reinventing of an already successful hot spot: BlueStone in Timonium was a hit as an upscale bar with food. It's even better now as a seafood restaurant.

Best example of the yin and yang of the restaurant business: The seafood restaurant Atlantic closed; the seafood restaurant Blue Sea Grill opened.

Best example of a yin with no yang: Spike & Charlie's quiet closing. Get your Brothers Gjerde fix at the place the two restaurateurs are still involved with, Joy America in the American Visionary Art Museum.

Cleverest way to avoid complaints about slow service: Taste in Belvedere Square bought the first round of drinks for its customers for the first month it was in business.

Best use of cream in a soup: Should it be the oyster stew at Julia's or Luna del Sea's seafood bisque? Die of clogged arteries but die happy.

Best crab cake (moderately priced): City Lights in Harborplace, lots of lump crab meat and just enough seasonings and binder.

Best crab cake (the upscale version): A tossup between the one at Louisiana in Fells Point and at the new Canton's Pearls.

Quietest change of hands (of a once notable restaurant): Four West, formerly the Polo Grill, has become the Club at the Colonnade, now run by Aramark, which is in charge of the hotel there.

Best entree: Julia's red snapper with a julienne of fresh vegetables, mashed avocado, little wonton pillows stuffed with lobster and a sort of mayonnaise flavored with garlic, ginger, lime and Chinese mustard.

Best place to eat and tango: The new Gardel's in the old City Life Museum. The food is inventive and pricey.

Best creme brulee: No award was given this year.

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