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At Root

. . . Mandoragora Has Potential

Uli Loskot


This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 1/1/2003

Good riddance to 2002, one of the truly idiotic years in recent memory. Everyone seemed on edge and resentful, and ordinary citizens--or Baltimoreans at least--seemed even to have lost the ability walk down the street in a non-stupid way. (Keep to the right! The right!) On a personal note, money seemed to flow out in equal portions to flab coming in, so that by year's end I was seriously considering going on Atkins, even though the last person I mentioned this idea to said that Atkins was the devil and made horn signs with his fingers.

Still, I'm not completely dissuaded against joining Dr. Atkins diet revolution. First of all, the whole thing makes sense to me--as much as any discussion about the complex inner workings of our bodies can penetrate my dim, sunlight-deprived mind these days. But I am completely open to a treatise about the dangers of a low-fat diet. And I'm mighty intrigued by an eating regimen that favors a bacon and cheese omelet over a dry bagel. Atkins isn't always careful enough about making distinctions among different kinds of carbohydrates--between a kumquat and a box of pasta, say--but the thought of giving oneself over fanatically to a new way of eating is tempting.

On the other hand, there are a few Atkins no-nos I'd be loath to do without, even during the two-week "induction period." Caffeine, for instance. I'd miss bread, too (although with the state of breadbaskets in Baltimore, not too much). And vodka.

Given this sudden interest in forsaking carbohydrates forever, it might have made sense to have devoted this New Year's column to a carbohydrate blowout with a bottomless bowl of pasta. But a previous commitment delivered me instead to the welcoming front door of Mandoragora, a three-month-old restaurant in Fells Point, just a few steps from Broadway.

Mandoragora is the herb better known as mandrake. In various times long gone by, it was invested with magical properties--most commonly as an aphrodisiac--all of which, the menu informs us, have been scientifically proven untrue: "The best aphrodisiac . . . is having a good time . . . enjoying a good meal in a good atmosphere." With this we heartily agree and say this: The atmosphere is good and we had a good time, but the food is not so good right now. At least not as good as the pleasantly decorated place deserves, and definitely not as good as the endlessly considerate bartender/server deserves.

In keeping with the theme of new beginnings and transitions, Mandoragora, we were told, is in a state of flux itself. There's a new chef in the kitchen busily putting his own twist on established menu items. However, if withholding pesto sauce from the fettucine-with-pesto dish is a twist, it's an ill-advised one. It would be better to rethink the whole menu, which right now hovers somewhere between pub grub and fancy place. Vegetarian offerings are limited, and one fish dish doesn't feel ample

There's potential here, if based only an outstanding beef and barely soup ($2.50) sampled on two separate visits. Packed with tender beef and chunky carrots, it had a deep sherried taste.

Less compelling arguments were made by two other appetizers. The garlic cheese bread ($4.75) was topped with provolone and feta cheese but wasn't broiled well enough. Pedestrian mushroom caps stuffed with crab dip ($5) were better but not by much. The mushrooms themselves were still a little watery from their rinsing and the crab, which was mixed with spinach and cream, lacked a good crabby taste.

Mandoragora's signature dish, eggplant with lamb and garlic ($12.50), consisted of sautéed slices of eggplant simmered with ground lamb and garnished with crispy fried onions and fried peppermint in butter, all in a creamy white sauce. Lots of points for degree of difficulty, but the overabundance of gray and brown, mostly in the forms of shreds, was less appetizing than promised. And again, the fettucine pesto ($10.50) was nothing of the sort.

There's hope for Mandoragora, though. It's a great-looking place, and my dining companion especially liked the high tables and chairs in the lemon-colored dining room. In bustling Fells Point, the place has oasis possibilities.

Things will be better for everyone next year, I'm sure of it.

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