Food ** (2 stars)
Service *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere *** (3 stars)
The Rumor Mill is many things that Side- streets, the restaurant it replaces, wasn't. The space has been redone; and instead of cozy and quaint, it's now serene and hip. The walls are the color of water, the floors are polished hardwood, an Asian mural graces one wall and the tables are set with chopsticks.
Instead of being an American bistro, the Rumor Mill is a "fusion bar and restaurant," which I think means that drinks like the Blushing Geisha and the Lychee- tini are just as important as the dinner entrees.
The menu itself seems to involve a lot of Japanese food, a little bit of Chinese and Thai, and deep-fried sweet potatoes with sweet cinnamon butter.
Do those last sound great or what?
Unfortunately, there is one thing the new restaurant and its predecessor have in common. Sidestreets was inconsistent when I ate there six years ago, and the food at the Rumor Mill is just as uneven.
Take the seafood. One of the owners, Matthew Milani, described the restaurant's food as "seafood forward," so I started off with a house specialty, the tuna tartare and guacamole dip, followed by soft-shell crabs. The raw tuna was perfectly fresh, the soft-shell crabs not so much. My friend's wasabi-crusted snapper wasn't everything it should have been either. Not bad, just not wonderfully fresh.
I recommend the tuna layered with radish sprouts, a lemon-soy sauce and freshly made guacamole with tortilla chips on the side. (Don't ask me why this works, but it does.) But I wouldn't have been wild about the crabs even if I had pulled them out of the ocean myself. The thick sauce tasted too much of capers and mustard for something so delicate. On the plus side, the green beans on the plate were beautifully cooked.
We didn't order the fries as an appetizer because they came with the barbecued ribs, also a house specialty. Unfortunately, there's no cinnamon-sugar butter if they are part of a dinner. (I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of dipping a french fry in sweetened butter.) Still, you have to love well-made sweet-potato fries, even without the extra fat; and the meaty, spicy ribs satisfied where the seafood didn't.
In general, the kitchen succeeded best when it didn't put on airs. Chicken skewers tasted OK, but the presentation was so complicated, without being beautiful, that you couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that they were just a variation on a Thai satay, with hoisin sauce as the main flavoring.
Dishes like the rice balls filled at the center with whatever occurs to the chef (in this case chopped beef, peppers and cream cheese), and then rolled in panko crumbs and fried, play to the kitchen's strength. The dumplings filled with crab, garlic, goat cheese, mustard and Old Bay seasoning just had too much going on.
My husband ordered the surf and turf salad, a special that night, which our waitress told us involved lobster meat and various salad ingredients, including goat cheese. We asked where the turf was, and she didn't know. We finally decided it must be the cheese. When the salad arrived, it was topped with a very good sliced steak, and there was much more of it than the skimpy portion of lobster.
Desserts are house-made, with an amaretto and white chocolate creme brulee probably the best of the lot, followed closely by an individual tart made with Asian pears. The banana won ton cinnamon stack was, again, simply too complicated. Ice creams are made in house with three flavors: mango, green tea and Kahlua chocolate.
The Rumor Mill is a pretty little restaurant with a menu that's just a little too ambitious for what the kitchen is capable of. If it pared things down a little, and made sure the seafood was the freshest of the fresh, it could be a go-to spot when folks wanted an alternative to Jordan's Steakhouse and Tersiguel's - Ellicott City's Big Two.
The Rumor Mill
8069 Tiber Alley, Ellicott City
Open Monday through Saturday for dinner
Appetizers, $4-$9; entrees, $20-$29
410-461-0041[Outstanding: Good: Fair or Uneven: Poor:]