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Competent But Cautious, The Owl Bar is Mt. Vernon’s Reliable Stand-By Pub

Owl Bar

Phone:410-347-0888
Address:1 E. Chase St.
Belvedere Hotel
Baltimore, MD 21202-

More on Owl Bar.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 9/15/2004

Probably because it’s tucked away behind the marble lobby of the Belvedere, it’s easy to forget The Owl Bar (1 E. Chase St., [410] 347-0888) is there. When we stopped in recently, it didn’t even feel like part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The crowd at the bar looked unfamiliar, as did the waitstaff. It felt a bit as though we’d wandered onto a movie set decorated with extras and day players.

What we were looking for from the Owl Bar was viability—a potential to serve as our go-to alternative when we grow weary of other Mount Vernon spots—and we found it, after a fashion. It’s got capital-A ambiance—from the dominating room-wide bar to the tables set with crisp white cloth napkins, and stained glass and wood everywhere—and it looks as impressively sumptuous now as I recall it ever having looked, the late-last-century addition of a mammoth copper-faced brick oven being a crowning touch.

Truffles catering company operates the Owl Bar, which might explain why the upscale pub menu ultimately feels corporate, overdetermined, or just plain impersonal. Still, the menu makes the prospect of casual frequenting plausible; it helps to have the 16-choice sandwich menu available at dinner; the abbreviated entrée listings range madly in price from $11.95 for the fish and chips to $39.95 for jumbo crab imperial. And a few entrées, such as shrimp stuffed with crabmeat and coconut peanut chicken, are perfect examples of menu items no one we know ever orders.

For a shared appetizer, we ordered one of the Owl Bar’s seven blandly conceived brick-oven pizzas, the “red” ($11.95), which tops marinara sauce with pepperoni, homemade Italian sausage, mozzarella, and oregano. It was to be the first in a succession of dishes that induced my companion to coin the phrase “high-end competent.” The crust lacked that brick-oven crispness, but the generously added meat toppings glistened and tasted fresh if not persuasively homemade. The pizza selections need a freshening up, some less safe concoctions than the old BBQ chicken pizza and the margherita—a nightly pizza special would be a good start.

From a dozen listed appetizers, ranging from the inevitable quesadillas, wings, and crab dip to the slightly edgier crab martini and crostini with brandied blue cheese, walnut, and pear, we settled on the bucket o’ clams ($8.95), a handsomely presented silver vessel full of briny bivalves, topped with sheer strips of yellow pepper. It proved a winner through and through, with buttery broth on the bottom for sopping up with the good bread provided. The prime rib chili ($5.95) merits the extra emphasis given it on the menu—dusky brown and hearty enough for a meal, but not overly beefy, balanced by tender beans and a lingering sweetness. Eagerly recommended.

But some essential entrées fell short. The fish and chips ($11.95) doesn’t work. The purposefully bland interior fish, possibly haddock, calls for an assertively seasoned breading (think salt and pepper), and this breading was criminally benign. The passable fries but too-dry coleslaw didn’t help. The pork tenderloin entrée ($17.95), wrapped with bacon and served with a high-end competent balsamic onion marmalade, proved to be just blameless bar food.

The Owl Bar’s version of the Monte Cristo sandwich ($8.95), a deep-fried ham and turkey sandwich, which has the distinction of being forbidden on every diet plan ever devised, was sabotaged by heavy breading—it was less a fried sandwich than a thing. Much better is the open-faced prime rib sandwich ($12.95), a grilled slab of beef served on a grilled roll. Impossible to eat as a sandwich, of course, but a consumer-friendly choice (it’s a big piece of meat) and just the kind of thing that a regular would return to.

The verdict: We wish the menu were more compelling, the execution of the low-end items more flamboyant. We think we’ll keep the Owl Bar as our version of the “safe school,” a respectable alternative when we can’t go to our favorite Mount Vernon spots. It works best, somehow, when you suddenly remember it’s there.

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