Parkside Tries to Do Too Many Things at Once
This location is closed
Kenny Rogers, resplendently replicated in black velvet, holds court from the wall of the Parkside Restaurant, Fine Food, and Spirits (4709 Harford Road,  444-6004), Harford Road's newest eatery. This is late period Rogers, the Kenny who's past begging Ruby not to take her love to town, or dropping in to see what condition his condition is in. Instead, this Rogers is hairy and open-shirted, most likely testifying about his lady's belief in him, or advising poker players in the art of knowing when to hold and when to fold. On the wall just past the bar, Rogers is joined by a series of framed labels taken from cans of salmon, fruit, and vegetable.
On the other side of the restaurant, oil painted canvases large enough to double as sails for small boats span the walls and towards the sheet-like curtain that divides the space behind which a bakery and the kitchen lurk, a children's area (complete with rules of play) sits empty, like a playground on a rainy afternoon. The whole effect feels disjointed rather than artfully eclectic, and as I take in the restaurant from my church pew-cum-booth, I'm weirdly reminded both of the DIY restaurant-efforts most often found in university towns and a young, grinning Mickey Rooney who urges his pals with the rally, "Hey kids, let's put on a show."
Like the kids in a Mickey Rooney movie, the Parkside embodies a can-do spirit, but with decidedly amateurish results. And right now, it feels like the Parkside works better as a cool idea for a restaurant, rather than as a restaurant itself. A collaboration between four friends (former Brewer's Art brewer Chris Cashell and his wife, Colleen, plus Vickie Johnson and Troy Zinderman) the business is actually made up of several components including a bakery and a market as well as a dining room, and this many projects under one roof may be what is undermining the focus of any of them, resulting in an undefined space and less than perfect meals.
That being said, the Parkside is doing quite a lot right with its bar, offering a well-chosen selection of craft beers sold at ridiculously reasonable prices in generous imperial pints. At $3 each, pints of Victory Hop Devil could become a serious and dangerously affordable habit. The food that comes to the table, however, is not nearly as addictive.
The Parkside's menu is heavy on comfort food, and though the menu changes frequently, Baltimore coddies and sauerbraten usually make an appearance, as do flatbreads ($8 each on Tuesday nights), and house-smoked fish. The latter, in the form of a smoked trout platter ($11), came with crispy toast points and a tangle of caramelized onions and capers, though one wondered why it was served flaked and in a tiny mound rather than plated fillet style. Was the kitchen trying to stretch the last of the night's fish? The flakes were flavorful, retaining that balanced smoky, creamy flavor to savor in smoked fish, but the presentation held no appeal. The same was true of the mound of shredded meat that was presented as sauerbraten ($15.) The menu promised dumplings, but the abundance of tartly marinated beef and gravy all but obscured them, and their disintegrating softness was more reminiscent of mashed potatoes. The coddies ($13) on the other hand, were clearly all mashed potatoes and little, if any, salt cod. (Again, was the kitchen out of fish?) Despite the presence of sautéed spinach as the vegetable of the day, the addition of potato wedges (an odd choice of side for a fish and potato cake) made for an awfully brown plate.
On the up side, a fig and goat cheese dotted house salad ($6,) like the batter-dipped chicken ($15), was straightforward and unfussy. The chicken, with a very light coat of batter, salt, and pepper, was juicy and satisfying in a homestyle sort of way Unfortunately, it is no longer on the menu, but has been replaced by a broiled half chicken ($16.) And the now defunct Tuesday Hot Sandwich special that evening ($8), described as catfish eschebe, tasted freshly of its lemon and lime marinade, though it would have benefited from a thinner and crispier (toasted) bread than the thick white slices of sandwich loaf that enveloped it.
For a restaurant that boasts its own bakery, the Parkside's dessert tray the night we visited was a study in sameness. Four tiny brown cakes in lemon, pound, pound with a dollop of raspberry, and cheesecake looked plain and tasted plainer. "Were they all the same cake?" one diner wondered. "How can they charge $4.50 for this?" ventured another. Considering the reasonable prices of much of the menu, the desserts stood as a mispriced anomaly.
Given that the Parkside has only been open since mid-October, it's possible that things may improve. The space may become better defined, the curtain may go away, and the kitchen may find its groove with the coddies. At least that's my hope, though I'm not one to gamble.