A fun and fanciful dining experience at the American Visionary Art Museum
If Tim Burton designed a restaurant, it would be Mr. Rain's Fun House. Of course, in Burton's hands, the mirrored mosaic animal heads that hang just inside the restaurant's entrance would probably speak, the lollipop-pink and -orange psychedelic starburst painted on one of the restaurant's walls would pulsate, and the magical griffins and giant rabbits in the vintage miniature merry-go-round tucked into the corner would glide up and down of their own accord, no push of a button necessary. (Burton would likely magically restore the condo-obstructed view of the harbor from the restaurant's dining room, too.)
But no matter. Because if you were imagining a restaurant to fit the former Joy America space in the American Visionary Art Museum, you couldn't do better than Mr. Rain's. Funky art-space décor? Check. An inventive menu as playful as the museum's art? Check. Hipster staff dressed in western shirts like so many indie band members? Check. A diverse dining crowd, including young families with small children and folks old enough to be their grandparents? Check again.
It's hard to reckon someone just stumbling upon Mr. Rain's, turning by chance down darkish Covington Street from Key Highway, spotting the sign that directs patrons inside the museum, following the instructions to the third floor. And the restaurant's location may be both its blessing and its curse, benefiting from museum visitors during the day, but making it work harder to draw a crowd at night. But despite tiny blips of unevenness in our meals, Mr. Rain's fulfills its promise of unique dining. It's an experience you won't find elsewhere in Baltimore, and that is to owners Bill and Maria Buszinski (former owners of Crownsville's Sputnik Café) and Perez Klebhan's credit.
Although the décor may be whimsical, Mr. Rain's takes its hooch seriously, and, like carnival hucksters, offers potent "elixirs," rather than cocktails, to cure whatever ails you. During our visit, the beverage menu spotlighted "the classics"--gin, bourbon, and bitters--in a number of intriguing combinations (including house-infused foie gras bourbon). The cosmo-naut ($12), a refreshing, spritzy blend of cava, gin, Thai basil, and bitters, drew more favor than the Seelbach cocktail ($12), a combination of bourbon, two kinds of bitters, and sparkling wine that tasted like cola with a kick; after it sat, mostly untouched, throughout the meal, our server generously (though unnecessarily) removed it from the tab.
Such thoughtfulness permeated service at Mr. Rain's. After I ordered both purple yam soup ($8) and the Portuguese style tofu ($14), our server , thinking I might be vegetarian, asked me if it was OK if the soup had "a tiny bit of chicken stock" (it was). And he made sure the diner who ordered the kimchi-inflected braised pork and cabbage ($17) knew that the spice level was high (the tofu could have used that warning as well).
In fact, spicy heat is one of the few constants in this eclectic menu. Even the mustard that accompanies the yeasty, knobby complimentary pretzel rolls packs a sharp, welcome wallop. World influences permeate, and in most hands, a menu that lists bulgogi and kimchi, preserved lemons and sambal, grits and latkes would be a confused mess, but somehow, most of it works.
One dish that's sure to divide a table, however, is the purple yam soup, a bowl of very thick, yet very light, cream-infused potato purée the color of lilacs. In the bowl, the soup looked like lavender-scented hand lotion, but it tasted bland and in need of salt. Our table split on its merits, but it seemed more novelty than finesse to me. Better were thick slices of browned wild boar sausage ($10) accompanied by a crispy latke and a spring palette of yellow beets, Asian-style dumplings ($10) whose mushroom filling spilled from their wrappers, and twiggy asparagus spears spread out on a rectangular dish and held in place with dabs of zesty horseradish-spiked dressing.
"Hotter is better" seems to be the kitchen's mantra in reference to spice, which is sure to appeal to many palates, and is a perfect philosophy with dishes like the pork and cabbage, where the succulent pork stew is a fine foil to the slow, sour burn of the kimchi; it is an excellent dish. But in the Prince Edward Island mussels appetizer ($10), the sambal overwhelms the sweet mussels and dominates the sparkling wine broth. Heat also threatened to overtake the Portuguese-style tofu, a hybrid stew of chickpeas and tofu served over black rice, but the earthy tartness of preserved lemon kept the balance in check. It, too, is a very good dish, made better by the fact that Mr. Rain's offers vegetarian dishes as serious fare, not afterthoughts.
Not everything on Mr. Rain's menu is spicy or boasts unusual pairings, and both the tangerine duck ($25) and seared sea scallops ($22) will satisfy diners with less adventuresome palates. Both also show that chef/owner, Bill Buszinski, can keep it simple and still impress.
Desserts on the night of our visit also split between the unusual and the expected. We opted for an inspired, feather-light cheesecake made with Stilton and drizzled in honey ($7) ("Like dessert and the cheese course in one," observed one diner) and a slightly less interesting apple crepe ($7) filled with cream cheese and draped in sautéed apples.
Not everything is perfect at Mr. Rain's Fun House (having salt and pepper at each table, rather than the servers moving the glass cellars from table to table on request, would be a small, but necessary improvement), but these are quibbles. So, sip an elixir, kick back, and let the show begin.