Return of the Zing
Long Overlooked Fells Point Irregular Matures Into Smashing Bistro
Spring stirs things up. Eyes start to water, old lovers materialize out of the blue, and restaurants you’d forgotten about pop into your head. One of these, Ze Mean Bean Café, if my friends are a reliable barometer, could legally trade under the name The I Went There Years Ago Café. One friend who went back with me said she hadn’t been there in 15 years—which is funny, because Ze Mean Bean opened in 1995 as an Eastern European dessert and coffee house, hence the name. A few years later, the café began adding in savory Eastern European food—pierogi, cabbage rolls—and today has evolved into a full-on liquor-license restaurant, with chef’s specialties served at dinner and a small listing of, brace yourself, small plates.
I never quite loved Ze Mean Bean in the old days, but now I think it’s kind of foxy. Its daylong hours of operation are certainly adorable—and I can’t think of another restaurant that opens as early as 9 a.m. for weekend brunch. The café’s exposed-brick-and-wood-floor looks have weathered very well, too. The flowers are fresh, the bric-a-brac dusted. A second-floor dining room provides refuge, if wanted, from live music performances on the postage-stamp stage.
The service is better now then I remember, when it was relaxed to the point of catatonia. Our waiter obligingly kept our meal at a leisurely pace, and smoothly helped us arrange what could have been a complicated meal. Nearly everything on the wily menu tempts, and considering the café’s origins in Slavic stolidity, there’s evidence of playfulness—a grilled marlin salad with spicy mango vinaigrette and Asiago cheese, a raspberry-glazed filet mignon.
We tried food from all over the menu and received mixed results, some things that were very good but nothing that seemed lazy or inept, just not as good as they must have sounded in rehearsal. Ze Mean Bean’s soups, though, are superb. The Ukrainian-style borscht ($3.95) is reason alone for going. Served warm, the simmered broth of sweet beets is tempered by other root vegetables and outfitted with shreds of chicken. It’s delicious, both hearty and subtle. Equally appealing was a soup special, a creamy tomato and fennel soup with cod ($5.95), which benefited by blending in just enough fennel not to overwhelm the mellow cod flavors with a licorice snap.
Ze Mean Bean’s szopska salad ($7.95) superbly combines the ingredients of a Greek salad—tomatoes, kalamata olives, and feta—and ups the pleasure by slicing long strips of European cucumber and tossing everything in a bracing white wine and tarragon vinaigrette. Sadly, a Slavic sampler ($9.95), when shared among five people, goes by a little too fast to fully explore the merits of the café’s cabbage roll (holupki), potato pancake, kielbasa, and touted pierogi—only the big, porky, well-seasoned kielbasa makes an emphatic impression.
Instead of the sampler, check out the hriby dip ($7.95), a creamy blend of mushrooms and fresh herbs topped with sour cream and melted Gruyère, even though individual nuances of porcini, cremini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms get blurred in all the creamy luxury.
Entrées designated as Chef’s Specialties arrive stylishly, accompanied by smart little things like haricots vert, broccolini, fried sage-polenta cakes, but they pull up just short of full success. A Muscovy duck breast ($23.95) was probably too big to absorb its sesame marinade evenly—many bites were bland—and a topping of mission-fig confit felt extraneous, more like some chopped-up figs. Topped by an already salty olive tapenade, a lovely seared fillet of grouper ($22.95) was hobbled by the excessive saltiness from its bed of creamy smoked-scallop quinoa.
Slavic entrées succeeded simply. A Hungarian goulash ($14.95) delivered the fortifying flavor of meat and vegetables stewed in red wine. Its hunks of beef tenderloin were meltingly tender. Accompanied by baby carrots and seasoned potatoes, a plate of holupki ($8.95) satisfied with the homemade pleasure of tender cabbage rolls stuffed with savory meat and rice. However, topped with a negligible meat glaze and filled with “Kiev butter,” a bland chicken Kiev ($14.95) came across too tentatively, without sufficient richness or piquancy.
Desserts at Ze Mean Bean are made, we were told, by the owner’s mother, and they’re disarmingly straightforward in a bake-sale way. We noticed a few couples who had wandered in just for dessert and coffee. The café offers, along with its weekend brunch, ²arious monthly and weekly special evenings (check www.zemeanbean.com), any of which would be an ideal time to discover—or rekindle your affection for—this blast from the past.