My Fair Lady
Miss Irene's goes from dive to delicious
This location is closed
Once upon a time there was a Fells Point bar called Miss Irene's on the corner of Ann and a street pronounced "thaymes." It was a neighborhood bar, a dive, some might say, but the folks who loved it, loved it. But things change. Today, newcomers to Fells Point pronounce the street's name as if it were the English river, and Miss Irene's (1738 Thames Street,  558-0033), now a bar/restaurant, has been transformed, swan-like, into a serious spot for fine drinking and dining.
And what a transformation it is. Three years worth of renovating has yielded a truly beautiful space, particularly in the main dining room upstairs where the ceiling soars cathedral-like over wide floorboards and dormer windows allow light to glance off the dark Arts and Crafts style chairs. Walls are painted a deep maize, and though the wrought-iron chandeliers lit with faux candles are reminiscent of something you'd see in either a monastery or Medieval Times, white tablecloths and fresh flowers soften the effect. It's so appealing that I'd want to hang out at Miss Irene's even if the food wasn't good.
But happily, the food is quite nice, if a bit old-fashioned, as is the service. And in both cases, these are pluses. It feels courtly when your server responds to your "thank you" with "my pleasure," and sweetly formal when you return from a trip to the restroom to find your napkin refolded and sitting on your plate. And while I've been quietly tiring of the overabundance of comfort food coming out of area restaurants (and yes, there is white truffle macaroni and cheese on Miss Irene's menu), the international influences--a little Italian, a little French, a dash of Mediterranean--add interest.
Miss Irene's offers both entrées and small plates, but the small plates are served only in the bar, no exceptions. (We were shuffled upstairs to the dining room without the benefit of that explanation, but later found out that the hostess had started only the day before.) And while small plates like sausage and white bean cassoulet or grilled steak medallion hover around $10, making for an extremely reasonable night out, the same $10 buys an appetizer upstairs with most of the entrées falling squarely into the $15 to $25 range, another sign that this is no longer your neighborhood bar.
That said, I liked much of what we sampled at Miss Irene's. Beef carpaccio ($12) was rosy fresh, tissue thin, and dressed scantily in a light lemony mustard sauce surrounded by arugula. Though the calamari appetizer ($12) was oddly similar in preparation to the carpaccio, only with the addition of capers, potatoes, and tomato, it was grilled with a careful hand that yielded a mild, sweet smokiness.
Chef Kenneth Plante's menu offers small tweaks to traditional dishes, so his moules frites ($18) exchanges a classic white wine or beer base for a strikingly rich brown butter and brandy sauce which lent a nutty, deeper flavor to the mussels. I'm not sure I liked it better than the classic preparation, but I loved the frites, needle-thin potato shards reminiscent of Durkee Potato sticks (though a helluva lot better). The diner who ordered the ahi tuna served over housemade pasta ($25) immediately dubbed it "a super duper tuna noodle casserole," for the creamy sauce (definitely not Calabrese, as described on the menu) that graced the addictive homemade noodles. Saffron risotto ($26), chock full of perfectly cooked salmon, mussels, and shrimp also tipped high on the rich scale for its creamy bisque sauce. Over the course of the evening, we watched folks around us tackle meatier entrées, as one table inhaled Wagyu burgers, while at another, a young woman gently corrected a staff member who served a generous braised lamb shank to her date. "He didn't think this could be for a lady," she giggled.
Desserts were limited to apple galette, a trio of crème brûlées (vanilla, chocolate, and orange), and a small selection of ice creams and sorbets. And though we ordered the crème brûlée ($7) reluctantly, the orange, in particular, was a revelation of bright flavor and juiciness (the chocolate, with its consistency of soft marshmallow punctuated by chunks of chocolate was pretty swell, too).
Miss Irene's has a small but serviceable wine list and the beer selection, especially on draft, hits plenty of corners of the world. What's missing from the beer list, however, are prices. Savvy drinkers don't expect something like Affligem dubbel to come cheaply, but an $8 beer merits a heads up.
Toward the end of our meal, a gentleman from another table asked us if this was our first visit to Miss Irene's and whether or not we enjoyed our meal. Yes on both counts, we told him, asking the same in return. This was his fifth visit, he told us, pointing to the half dozen things on the menu he had already tried, but he confided, he was already looking forward to the next time. Me, too.