A bistro brings old-fashioned touches and fine wines to Mount Washington
If Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods, then it's also a city of hungry neighborhoods, given the rate at which modest, community-centered restaurants pop up over town. You know these places. They're casual and affordable, the ones folks favor when they want an easy meal they don't have to cook themselves. Although their modest menus could often be exchanged with a joint in another neighborhood without anyone noticing, the neighborhood restaurant often has a certain something--a signature dish, a warm vibe, a charismatic owner--that makes folks glad it's in their corner of the city, but wouldn't necessarily draw other patrons from around town. The Falls in Mount Washington (1604 Kelly Ave.,  367-7840, thefallsmtwashington.com) is this kind of place.
Although it fits squarely in the neighborhood joint genre, the Falls, which opened over the winter in the former Freda's Kitchen, juggles several competing personalities. Peopled by a young, friendly, if casual staff, it's a family friendly restaurant, complete with kids' menu and chicken tenders, but it's also a bar with a savvy wine list. Done up in charcoal gray walls and mod white chairs, the front portion of the space tries for a bit of hipster chic (the Spoon and LCD Soundsystem soundtrack also contribute to this), but the back remains stubbornly casual with deli-shop black iron chairs and soda taps in the corner.
The menu, too, straddles the divide between non-threatening and modern. It's a roster of familiar foods--salads, sandwiches, burgers, roast chicken, a pork chop--with several bumped up a notch, like the dusting of panko rather than simple crumb in the chicken tender appetizer, or using meat from Monkton's Gunpowder Bison in the burgers and steaks. But in some cases, it is the reach backward to a more old-fashioned ingredient that makes a familiar favorite better than usual. I'm pretty sure it was celery seed in a creamy, but not too rich, crab dip ($9.50) that gave it a pleasant depth. And in the ruby salad ($8), the tangle of red onion and red cabbage slivers, pickled and crisp, elevated the now ubiquitous mesclun and beet salad to something more memorable.
Sandwiches and entrées feel more ordinary, despite quality ingredients and generous portions. Part of this is due to sauces that can't quite compete with the rest of a dish's ingredients. So while a tumble of colorful vegetables and fat shrimp dotted a plate of fettuccine primavera ($10, plus $4 for shrimp, $3 for chicken) the whole dish felt bland because the white wine sauce lacked much spice or spark. On the other hand, spicy shrimp ($15) bathed in a red chili basil sauce and served over spinach and squash looked pretty, but the sauce was one-note.
On a midweek evening with the restaurant filled with young couples and families, I expected to see more sandwiches going out to tables, rather than the parade of salads and pasta. But perhaps a grilled Reuben or rustic Italian combo feels more lunch than dinner. Still, the Thurman, a grilled chicken panini ($9) with fresh mozzarella and pesto was perfectly fine, served on a good, crusty roll with a better tomato than one expects this early in the season.
A foray into the small specials list yielded salmon ($16) served over a terrific bacon and mustard-enhanced German potato salad, another welcome throwback and a much more appealing choice than the regular menu's sides of rice, wilted spinach, and lemon, caper, vermouth sauce.
Desserts, all cheesecakes the night we dined, are from Mrs. Pose Bakery. More appealing is lingering with a microbrew or a glass from the Falls' better-than-average wine list compiled by WYPR-FM Cellar Notes co-host Al Spoler. The list's roughly 20 wines available by the bottle, glass, and a very generous half-glass, enables you to sample something new, start or end the evening with bubbly, or switch gears from red to white without much effort or cost (my "half glass" of prosecco was a small, but full, flute that came in at $3.85). That's a perk you won't find in most neighborhood places and worth the trip alone.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.