Great Food Transcends Loud Crowds at Lil's
When it comes to restaurant slogans, I'm of two minds. Some sound inviting, others are more off-putting. This week's restaurant is one that really lives up to its slogan. If you want to experience "the other side of sanity," try Federal Hill's Crazy Lil's (27 E. Cross St.,  347-9793) around 8 on a Saturday night. C.C. and I did, with my college pal Quiv in tow. Sans reservation, we had to wait (albeit not for too long) for a table beyond the very crowded, very loud bar. If I'd planned ahead we could have dined upstairs, where it's quieter and smoke-free, but even with the many large speakers just above our heads and the occasionally poor air quality, there was no denying the quality of the service or the excellence of the chef's food. (These are the same folks who brought you Dooby's, across the water in Canton.)
It's late by the time we settle in, order a bottle of reasonably priced wine, and tear into crusty, dill-dominated herb rolls served with honey butter. As described on the menu, the appetizers sound like mini-meals, so I order one as an entrée and get the tempting-sounding crab bisque en croute ($5.75) as, well, an appetizer. Presentation isn't everything, they say, but this is one fabulous presentation. The bisque is served in a small crock covered by a large square of scored puff pastry. Delicious in its own right, the pastry keeps the soup searingly hot. Dark, peppery, generously laced with sherry, the bisque is both fragrant and flavorful, with a few perfect lumps of white crab meat at the bottom. The dish is rich, and you'll want nothing more than a salad, sandwich, or appetizer to round out your meal.
In fact, scallop Avalgere ($9.50) is an ideal follow-up to my bisque. Five large scallops and a few pieces of salmon are joined by slices of portobello mushroom and plum tomato in a tarragon cream sauce. Thin pieces of toasted French bread form the base and soak up the heady juices. Even without a starch and a veggie, the dish is completely satisfying.
Quiv isn't sure that the delicate flavor of crab should be paired with beef, but nevertheless she opts for steak Chesapeake ($21.95), with the proviso that the crab be served beside, rather than atop, the meat. The twin filets (served with not-too-garlicky garlic mashed potatoes) are thin but medium rare, as ordered, and accompanied by a cup of béarnaise sauce that Quiv raves about. The crab, three enormous lumps, is delicate and sweet.
C.C. loves a chicken dish, so she selects chicken Roseanna ($15.95), a lightly breaded breast rolled around a core of smoked provolone, fresh mozzarella, Italian ham, and a sweet pepper relish. In similar dishes, the chicken often ends up dry and fairly tasteless, but this breast is juicy beneath a wild-mushroom dijonnaise sauce. The crunchy wild-rice mix pleases, as does the vegetable du jour, a medley of well-cooked broccoli and zucchini with a bit of red pepper.
Our only quibble, really, is that our entrées (and my appetizer) are no longer hot when we receive them. This isn't our server's fault; she's doing the best she can amid the noise, the confusion, and the overflowing bar crowd. But the kitchen is upstairs, and the trays are brought down by runners. From what I can see everyone is doing her or his job, but hot foods should arrive hot.
The twentysomethings around us are ordering lots of grilled pizzas ($6.95-$10.95) and sandwiches ($6.50-$10.50; market price for the crab-cake sandwich). An enormous shrimp salad ($10.50) catches C.C.'s eye, and I know we'll be coming back for it soon.
Though we're on the verge of hearing loss by now, we brave the music a while longer for a taste of crème brûlée ($4.95) and chocolate mousse ($4.95). Quiv, our Francophile, rates the crème flavorful if a bit too soft, and she praises the nicely browned top and generous portion. The plate is decorated with fresh blackberries and strawberries, a nice contrast to the sweet dessert. The mousse, served in a wine glass and topped with real whipped cream, is more dense than creamy, with a texture somewhere between a brownie and a pudding. It melts in our mouths, though, and isn't overly sweet, the better to let the intense chocolate flavor through.
Before we leave, the hostess stops by our table to thank us for waiting.
"I just hope we can make it out through the bar," Quiv says, eyeing the crowd.
"Oh, we haven't really been busy tonight," the hostess says. "You should see it on a busy night."
I don't think so. On this night, Crazy Lil's is crazy enough for me.
Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. The bar is open till 1 a.m. every night.