New Midtown Restaurant Doesn't Quite Live Up to Its Name
A restaurant called Feast invokes certain kinds of expectations. We'll need to dress up. The staff will intimidate. The food will be outrageously over the top. None of the above applies to the dining room located in the 4 East Madison Inn (4 E. Madison St.,  605-2020) because, regardless of whether the name "Feast" is meant to signify a grand meal or is an acronym (as the restaurant's web site suggests) for Fabulous Eating at Sandy's Table, the restaurant is decidedly more modest than its opulent name implies. This is not a critique, but merely a warning that Feast isn't your typical Baltimore restaurant, and that is most certainly part of its charm.
Feast came into existence in mid-June when inn owner (and restaurant chef) Sandy Lawler decided to add dinner to the meals she was already serving (the inn offers breakfast to its guests, and lunch is open to the public), and there's something sweetly amateur about the whole endeavor. The floor slants; the china is mismatched. The very young staff, including Lawler's daughter, who serves as a more than able hostess, are earnest in their desire to please. Sandwiched between the inn's impressive Victorian front parlor and the kitchen, the dining room holds nine tables layered in royal blue and white-on-white striped tablecloths, with oddly casual dining chairs that clash with the room's elaborate floor to ceiling mirrors and marble fireplace. The fit here is snug, and diners may find themselves privy to conversations at other tables, though, this being Baltimore, they're liable to know the folks at those tables anyway (as was the case the night we were there when two tables held a conversation across the dining room, then apologized profusely for it).
The food at Feast feels similarly familiar (as well as "sustainably sourced," according to the menu), and diners can choose from salads and small-plate options, as well as traditional entrée portions. However you mix and match, don't miss the appetizers, particularly the savory seasonal tart ($6) and the charcuterie plate ($8). Rather than a variety of meats, the latter offers one house-made pork sausage flavored with garlic and thyme and studded with walnuts. Cornichons sliced and fanned make a pretty (and tasty) garnish, but the rich pork could have a used a more piquant mustard sauce as a complement rather than the sweet mustard that came with the plate. But there was nothing that could have improved the open-face fresh tomato tart with its layer of goat cheese and heavenly buttery crust. I could have eaten a larger version as my entrée; it was simple and perfect.
So too was the wild rockfish ($18). The restaurant notes that this entrée isn't always available, but if it is, order it. The moist, roasted fillet is served atop expertly cooked lentils, and the whole dish is laced together with a subtle tarragon butter sauce that enlivens the flavor of both fish and legumes. The bistro steak served with mushroom polenta ($18), on the other hand, didn't quite come together. While the flavors--beef, mushrooms, red wine--were acceptable, if a little heavy, the dish looked so unappetizing it was hard to separate appearance from reality. Everything on the plate, from the mushroom polenta to the red wine reduction smothering the steak, was a murky brownish gray color. Serving the polenta on the side (and leaving out the mushrooms) might solve this problem.
Feast's desserts (all $5) offer more comfortable choices, with a peach and blueberry cobbler (the seasonal fruit dessert of the day) a dining room favorite, prompting one diner to give the "it's just like my mom used to make" thumbs-up to the cobbler's sweet biscuit topping. Buttermilk gives panna cotta a bit more heft and tang than one usually finds in the dessert, and French press coffee is a polished touch. The restaurant also offers vegan sorbets.
Feast is not going to be for everyone. Despite all the good intentions, its modest prices, and some lovely food, it still feels a little like a dress rehearsal before the big night. Given time to get comfortable as a restaurant, it might emerge as one of Baltimore's hidden stars. H
Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday; BYOB with a $5 corkage fee.