Casual and affordable dining at Maisy's pleases, but doesn't impress
In early May, when Matt Helme was preparing to open Maisy's (313 N. Charles St.,  220-0150) in the old Copra space, he promised an economical menu that was "Baltimore-centric with a twist." Two months after the restaurant's opening, Helme has succeeded in creating an affordable, casual menu with all but one entrée under $20, as well as a wine list, albeit a pretty routine one, where bottles are $20 and glasses cost $6. In a recession--or any time, really--this is appreciated. The "Baltimore-centric" side of Maisy's menu is less obvious: a crab cake and two dishes featuring local Roseda beef do make appearances, but there isn't a clear emphasis on seafood or soul food or any particular dish that makes you think, "Now, this is Baltimore cooking."
Maisy's looks much the same as Copra save the banner announcing the restaurant's change of name that hangs in front of the former restaurant's sign on the front of the building. There's still plenty of wood and stone and copper tints, and the wood-burning oven still flames at the far end of the restaurant. It's the kind of place that feels cozy in the winter, and maybe that's why restaurant staff decided to prop the front door open the night of our visit, as if to bring a bit of sunshine to brighten the darker, contemporary space.
But with the exception of watermelon soup on the specials sheet, Maisy's menu felt geared for cold weather, too. I might have been tempted by Roseda short ribs braised with coffee and adobo and served with pureed parsnips (no longer on the menu as of press time); or chicken, vegetables, and potatoes slow cooked in Shiraz; or juniper pan-roasted quail if it hadn't been 90 humid degrees outside. Not that there isn't plenty to choose from here, as our well-meaning server advised us the minute we were seated, fast talking us through the menu and specials and letting us know what was excellent or awesome.
She was totally on target with the onion tart ($5.95); it was indeed excellent, a square of buttery puff pastry filled with a salty-sweet tangle of caramelized onions and parmesan cheese. Often a dish like this can be just too rich, all cream and cheese that prevents enjoyment of more than one bite (see the macaroni and cheese, below), but this tart was more savory substance rather than just single-note fat. We concurred, too, that the calamari fritti ($8.25) could qualify as awesome. Dusted in blue cornmeal, the legs and rings looked as if they had spent a day on the beach and had come home sandy, which is, admittedly, an odd visual effect. But they were greaseless, tender, and crispy, and four of us finished the generous plate. We couldn't, however, extend quite the same enthusiasm to the cold watermelon soup ($5.95). The pale pink creamy soup tasted both fresh and refreshing thanks to a sprinkle of mint, and if you closed your eyes, initially you might have thought you were tasting cucumber until the sweetness kicked in. It wasn't overwhelming, but it was enough to prompt one diner to suggest the soup be re-worked as a dessert.
Along with entrées (known here as "mains"), Maisy's offers several sandwiches and wood-grilled pizzas, the latter huge and very much meant for sharing. Our choice, the tapenade ($11.95), featured tomatoes roasted to sweetness, black olive tapenade, and goat cheese spread over the thin, wood-stove-baked crust, a combination that balanced sweet, savory, and salty.
Roseda hangar steak ($16.95) also got points for full flavor, another reason it's good to see this cut of meat showing up on more menus. The inclusion of thick cut slices of just plain bland yellow and zucchini squash, however, made the plate feel institutional rather than unique (or even Baltimore-centric). Don't get me wrong; I love zucchini, well prepared. This was not, and neither were the crab cakes ($23.95 for two). Although the menu promised jumbo lump, lumps of any size were suspiciously missing. And while adding roasted corn to crab cakes isn't a bad idea, adding jalapeños is questionable. But even their heat did nothing to mask the crab cakes' faint fishiness.
Our final entrée, an oval dish of creamy macaroni and cheese with scallops ($16.95) contained only two scallops, though their flavor, too, was overwhelmed by the rest of the dish. My advice? Keep the smoky, mustard-spiked mac 'n' cheese, ditch the scallops, and order it as a side. That way more of it will be enjoyed at the table, rather than at lunch the next day. It's just too much richness to eat in that kind of quantity.
During the time of our visit, we were Maisy's only customers, despite the sandwich board outside the restaurant promising "We have a fantastic menu." The absence may have been due to the extension of Restaurant Week (in which Maisy's didn't participate) or the late August quiet that descends on the city or the fact that, right now, Maisy's offers little to distinguish it from other casual restaurants in order to pull folks from similar places in their own neighborhoods. Yet if you pick carefully, you can get a decent meal here without spending a lot of money.
Maisy's is open for lunch and dinner daily.