What's a nice semi-boneless quail with couscous and roasted shallots doing in a place like this?
From what I understand, the new Reserve is a serious upgrade from what was there before. But the upgrade consists of two bars, more flat-screen TVs than you can shake a stick at, some high-top tables, exposed brick walls, really loud music and no fabric to speak of.
All that adds up to a typical South Baltimore bar, nicer than some, but not exactly where you expect to find duck confit salad and creme brulee. Burgers and wings, yes. Creme brulee, no. There's a disconnect between the food and the setting.
On the other hand, if atmosphere doesn't matter but good food does, you can end up spending considerably less than you would at some chichi little dining room with plenty of style. Particularly if you go on a Wednesday, which is half-price wine night. That includes wines by the glass (generous pours) as well as bottles.
Take a dish like the blackened scallop appetizer on an excellent black bean and corn relish. The three fat scallops, perfectly cooked, are the equivalent of a main course at fancier places. For $11.
When I talked to executive chef Matt Merkel over the phone about his plans for the Reserve, he said eventually the bar crowd would be moved upstairs and the downstairs reserved for dining. That's hard to believe now that I've seen the place. The downstairs is a bar and always will be a bar, not a dining room.
I hope the Reserve can lure people in for the modern American food anyway and won't be forced to change the menu. When we were there, we weren't the only table enjoying the dinners as opposed to the sandwiches and salads. And don't get me wrong. There are wings available - Maryland-style as well as honey coriander. And there is a burger - a bison burger with a red pepper coulis.
As long as we're on the subject of bison, the kitchen's bison strip steak could hold its own with most beef steaks. It was evenly rare all the way through, charred on the outside, and full of juicy, meat flavor. The dark, wine-laden sauce was applied with discretion. With it came slender grilled asparagus and, as a nod to the season, mashed parsnips. The best part: You'll feel virtuous eating this steak compared to a well-marbled beef steak because it's so lean.
That quail I mentioned at the beginning, partially boned so you don't have to do the work of separating what tender meat there is from the little bones, comes not only with couscous but also spinach, bacon and raisins that add a necessary touch of sweetness.
The menu is evenly divided between seafood and meat entrees - four of each. The Reserve has a crab cake, of course, but more interesting are the fish dishes. The grouper fillet is thick, fresh, meaty and moist, with a thin, golden cornmeal crust. It lies on a potato-vegetable hash and is sauced with beurre blanc with a scattering of capers and snippets of smoked salmon for zing.
Merkel likes lobster (my kind of guy) and uses it in the mac and cheese - only nominally an appetizer. Try eating much of anything else after finishing this. It's flavored extravagantly with brie and bacon.
The lobster ravioli might not be made in house, but Merkel knows how to treat them - namely, with more lobster meat, saffron and cream. I did think the thin frizzle of crisply fried onions on top was odd, but it added a weirdly pleasant crunch to the dish. Only in a bar could you get away with this.
The Reserve's grilled calamari is another appetizer than could be an entree, with the squid almost taking a back seat to the chunky, flavorful tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella and arugula-frisee salad with herbed toast on the side (the only bread we saw that evening).
Even the most delicate of salads is substantial. The arugula salad with bell pepper strips, candied walnuts and dried cherries is bolstered with fat-fried goat cheese fritters. I would have preferred the promised stone-ground mustard vinaigrette; this was tossed with a quite sweet dressing, which wasn't bad.
Dinner can end with one of two desserts. I recommend the creme brulee. The pumpkin strudel tastes like sweetened canned pumpkin and pecans laid among oily phyllo leaves, not a cohesive dessert. No coffee is available yet.
It was a slow evening, which doesn't always equate with good service, but this night it did. My expectations weren't high, but the only glitch was that my husband didn't get a glass for his beer until he had asked twice. Not fine-dining service, of course, but we had a cheerful waitress who did her best with our complicated order.
The food is good at the Reserve; but not, frankly, good enough to make me want to go back, try to find a parking place - no easy task - and eat with so many TVs and blaring music. But if you're in the neighborhood anyway, and you equate noise with high energy and other good things, this could be your kind of place.
Where: : 1542 Light St., South Baltimore
Contact: : 410-605-0955, TheReserveBaltimore.com
Open: : for dinner nightly, for lunch Friday-Sunday
Appetizers: : $8-$15; entrees: $15-$24
Food: : ***
Service: : ***
Atmosphere: : **
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]