A good but overlooked restaurant keeps going despite empty seats
Like many in this precarious economy, B10 South, until recently known as Brasserie 10 South (10 S. Calvert St.,  528-8994), has experienced an identity crisis. Under the direction of Chef Cyrus Keefer, the restaurant began as a sleek French-inflected destination offering distinctly bistro-style dishes like braised leg and poached loin of rabbit and fricassee of escargot when it opened, below LuX nightclub, in January of this year.
But when customers failed to materialize (even after a mostly positive review from Baltimore Sun food critic, Elizabeth Large), Keefer remade the menu, transforming high concept into down home by replacing steak au poivre with smothered pork chops, and ale-brined chicken with fried chicken and waffles. Prices were lowered, the restaurant's name changed, and soon after, Keefer left.
That's a lot of change in a short time, and one has to appreciate a restaurant's willingness to try whatever it takes to make the business work (and because LuX's liquor license is dependent upon food being served on premises, the restaurant needs to remain open for the club to exist), but if B10 South were a contestant on American Idol, Randy would be exhorting, "I just don't know who you are, dude."
Certainly B10's location can take some of the blame for the restaurant's predicament. Although B10 is only a few blocks from the harbor, it's also a few blocks from the Block. Parking on this portion of perpetually under-construction Calvert Street is an issue, signage for the restaurant is practically non-existent, and its contemporary interior would feel more at home among the restaurants in Mount Vernon. But the economic downturn has certainly played a part, as well.
What little buzz the restaurant has garnered has centered around how empty its dining room is, despite the quality of food being served there. And this in turn poses a chicken-and-egg-like question: If a restaurant develops a reputation for being empty, will more people come to fill it? Or will they avoid it and go elsewhere? Whatever the reason, with the exception of our table and one lone couple in the bar area, B10 South was empty the night we dined there ("This place is crazy," said one of the bar customers as he passed through the dining room. "Where is everybody?"). Coupled with a bare-bones staff and an endless loop of contemporary R&B on the sound system, it felt like we arrived to a party too early. Or perhaps too late.
This is a shame because much of B10 South's food is tasty, a shade clever, and affordable. And while I didn't make it to the restaurant during its French phase, some of the food still shows the original menu's French influences, though you'll recognize this only after your meal arrives, and not from the menu (which feels oddly under-described in this day of listing every ingredient).
Meatloaf ($16) is pearly pale, a result of being made from veal as well as pork, and the three round slices, each wrapped in bacon, could double for jumbo-sized sea scallops. The result is delicate rather than hearty, more like a country paté, pleasant if a little bland, but definitely unexpected. And because some diners have issues with veal, this probably should be noted on the menu.
The pan-fried catfish ($16) was prepared a la française with the fish thinly cut to resemble a feathery skate wing and served with cheese grits, a nod to the classic pairing with mashed potatoes.
Southern fried chicken with waffles ($15), however, was pure soul food, and the best thing we had all evening. A huge helping of crispy/juicy drumstick, breast, and thigh positively dwarfed the slender portion of catfish on my plate, and bits of green onion enlivened the waffles. It was a perfectly executed, soul-satisfying dish.
While the menu promised smothered pork chops ($15), the plate came with just one chop, albeit a generously-sized one, covered with caramelized onions and pan gravy, and served with fluffy mashed sweet potatoes.
Although all entrées come with sides, B10 South offers more a la carte, including the above sweet potatoes, braised greens, black-eyed peas, creamed corn, and mac 'n' cheese, as well as a small selection of salads and starters. Of the latter, both the barbecue shrimp ($9) and fish tacos ($8) were straightforward and serviceable, but were outshone by the pickled carrots and cucumber that garnished each plate.
B10 offers several desserts, and a plate of assorted chocolate truffles ($6) and one of housemade, ice-cold éclairs ($6) filled with strawberry, coffee, and vanilla pastry cream ended our meal. Had the pastries been a little warmer, say room temperature, I would have loved them, as it was clear that they were full of butter and eggs, but served chilled, the coldness masked much of their flavor.
Despite its struggles, B10 South has potential, particularly as an after-work or happy hour destination. Bottled beer is eminently reasonable ($4 for a Clipper City Gold); the wine list goes beyond generic choices; and the space is warmly contemporary, dressed in cherry red and deep gold, with lots of candles and backlighting, and curtains of beads that fall between booths and separate the dining area and the white-leather clad lounge and bar. It feels incongruous for a place that offers comfort food, but give it points for hanging in there.