Old Space, New Meal
Meridian 54 breathes new life into the former home of Red Fish
Baltimoreans have long memories. They refer to buildings called "The Civic Center" and give directions based on long-gone structures, confusing newbies in the process. ("The YMCA? It's over where Memorial Stadium used to be.") But this historical memory is a harmless nod to the past and part of what puts the charm in Charm City. So when someone asks me where I'm eating and I say, "Meridian 54 (845 S. Montford, (410) 522-0541) at Boston and Montford in Canton," I'm compelled to cite the building's history, by adding that it was once Weber's on Boston and then Red Fish.
I never made it to the latter, but I have vague memories of eating beer-cheese soup in a darkly paneled room of the former. Today, however, the space is all brightness and light--from the tin-ceilinged bar, which runs the length of the building, to the pale yellow dining room that sits beside it. It's the kind of place where the bar--filled with fit, young Cantonites drinking microbrews and taking advantage of Meridian's happy hour specials--is more crowded than the dining room, and if I didn't want to have a conversation with my dining companions, I'd be more than happy to hang out and have dinner at the marble-topped bar or one of the four-tops. The dining room is quieter, almost zen-like, appointed with black and tan upholstered booths, and potted palms. Darkly framed glass "waterfalls" sit atop several booths, dividing the long dining room into more manageable sections. If it feels less comfortable than the warmly casual bar, try snagging a table in the front window, where during the evening you can watch Canton jog, bike, and saunter by.
Meridian 54's web site describes the food cooked by Chef Russell Braitsch as "diverse with a splash of Mediterranean," and the two-sided menu certainly offers plenty of choices but, overall, casual comfort food seems a better description. On the menu's front page, appetizers include the now almost mandatory lobster mac 'n' cheese, as well as the equally popular sliders, and a soft pretzel and grilled lamb sausage combo. Lite fare options on the menu's other side include familiar gussied-up bar fare such as lobster quesadillas, coconut shrimp, and crab dip. The difference between lite fare and appetizers? Lite fare plates are half price in the bar during happy hour, but the discount doesn't extend to the dining room.
We pick among pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and entrées, and begin with surf and turf sliders ($12)--the turf, Kobe beef, and the surf, a crab cake--and a salad of sweet potatoes and arugula ($8). The salad was delightfully simple: a pretty tangle of tiny greens, as delicate as those you find at the farmers' market, their spiciness balanced with small cubes of roasted sweet potato, toasted cashews, and tangy Roaring Forties blue cheese all served artfully on a long rectangular plate. The sliders weren't too fussy either, though I preferred the rich beef with its dab of savory sweet red onion marmalade to the crab cake, in which the pickled papaya overwhelmed the seafood with unnecessary sweetness.
The menu holds a number of straightforward entrée choices ranging from grilled filet mignon and jumbo lump crab cake to pan seared medallions of pork. But it also includes several fish dishes and a "cheese steak," ($19) described as "espresso and brown sugar marinated London broil with Shropshire Blue mac 'n' cheese." Our server termed it more "daring" than some of the other choices, so we tried it, and while "daring" turned out to be an overstatement, "enjoyable" would be an honest substitute. Although the table was split on how chewy versus tender this cut of meat should be (and the slices definitely fell on the chewier side), there was agreement regarding how using espresso gave depth to the glaze, not unlike the way chocolate gives a dusky tinge to mole. Our order of hazelnut and curry crusted salmon ($18) was tame in comparison, though the kitchen showed a steady hand in cooking it to order. Both the fish and the wild mushroom ravioli ($12) were served with a blood orange sauce, but the sweetness worked better with the salmon than with the ravioli. Sauce aside, the ravioli impressed with its subtle earthy richness and, at $12 for a generous plate, was the bargain of the evening--an $8 fishbowl of a glass of wine aside.
After reeling off a list of usual dessert suspects such as crème brûlée and chocolate soufflé cake, our attentive server confided that there were several more cakes not on the menu, made daily by "Mr. Nicky," the owner. If this tempts you, as it did us, plan to share; the moist, old-fashioned, multi-layered chocolate-cappuccino cake ($7) is more than a mouthful.
Meridian 54 is trying to do a lot, and at least on the night of our visit, was doing it pretty successfully. More importantly for a business, it looks like the neighborhood has embraced it, a good sign that the restaurant will survive long enough to have some history.