Fair and Fowl
Try the Seafood, Stay for the Chicken
This location is closed
Years back, when I lived on South Broadway, there was a Caribbean place around the corner, on Baltimore Street, called Braznell's. I went there on a couple of occasions and recall good seafood dishes, such as conch chowder and a dish combining greens and tiny crabs. I especially remember a rum punch as deceptively alcoholic as it was delicious. Good thing I only lived around the corner.
The new tenants of this pretty three-story space, Sydnee de Mar, serve a pretty good mai tai, but the rum punch just isn't the same. The small menu pays homage to Southern cuisine, with success, and seafood, with mixed results.
Our night at the new joint gets off to a rocky start. When I called for a Friday-evening reservation for three, I was told I wouldn't need one. When C.C., our guest Andrea, and I show up, we are asked if we have a reservation. I relate my phone call, to which the hostess replies, "Oh, you don't need one. I was just asking if you had one." But when we are shown to a table in the pretty but small upstairs dining room, we end up at a two-seat table right next to the stairs. A third chair has to be added, putting Andrea in the flow of traffic and facing away from the pleasant view. I ask if we could move to one of several empty tables that afford less congestion and a better view but am told--you guessed it--that those tables are reserved.
Life goes on, so we get over it and select appetizers. Seafood Ya-Ya gumbo ($8) comes as two cups, one filled with dirty rice, the other containing a dark, spicy brew of shrimp and scallops (though the shrimp is small and we can't find the promised crab) with tomato, green onions, and herbs. I'm not sure you can call something that doesn't contain okra gumbo, but I like the Ya-Ya. (Andrea's take: The Ya-Ya is so-so.)
The Caesar salad ($6) is a bit below par, with slightly soggy croutons and a very ordinary dressing. Our favorite starter is Sydnee's quesadillas ($8)--one quesadilla, really, albeit a really big one--which is filled with chicken (can't find the promised shrimp) and cheese and some real heat. It's far spicier than the gumbo. We all pronounce it terrific.
In trying to sample a bit of this, a bite of that, we cover the menu's highs and lows, I think. The low would be Andrea's pick, fettuccine de Mar ($17). It comes with a choice of chicken or shrimp; Andrea picks shrimp but doesn't eat them. They taste of iodine to her, though C.C. and I find them OK, if slightly overdone. The pasta is proper and the serving large, but the sauce is misguided. All around me, I see diners trying to doctor it with salt and pepper. Tomatoes, basil, garlic, Jamaican spice, and vodka--how can a cream sauce with all those good things miss? Yet it does.
C.C.'s selection, grilled red snapper ($18), is mostly pleasing, although our server calls it rockfish when she sets it down, and it appears as "Rockfish Negril" on our bill. The large filet, a bit overdone, is draped over freshly steamed spinach. A light cream sauce covers the top. It's good, but just good.
The highlight of the entrées proves to be my choice, Southern fried chicken ($13). It's simply superb. I was a bit worried by the description--boneless breast--but, honey, this is the best deep-fried boneless chicken this gal has ever had. There's two big pieces, crispy on the outside, moist and flavorful and tender within, sided by pristine sautéed collard greens with some crunch left and topped with a divine tomato chutney that contains sweet onion and green pepper. It's such a great chutney that I want to buy a case on the spot. What it does for the chicken cannot be described. It can only be--it must be--tasted.
Desserts are simple, and excellent. Pie is $3, cake is $4. We're told a woman comes in each morning to prepare and bake them. Our choices tonight are a coconut pound cake, a black-walnut cake, and a sweet-potato pie. Andrea likes the black-walnut cake, though its nutty, sweet taste owes more to walnut extract than to real black walnuts. C.C. loves the sweet-potato pie because the flavor isn't overwhelmed by spice. My own favorite is the coconut pound cake. The coconut is really more of a suggestion than a fully formed idea, but I like that. A subtle flavor of fresh citrus permeates the moist confection, and it makes for a light version of a usually heavy dessert.
Sydnee de Mar's service needs some polish, and the kitchen may still be finding its way, judging by all those ingredients that show up on the menu but not on the plate. I hope a steady hand is at the reins, because the restaurant appears to have something of a following already. But followings can be fickle, unless they get a bistro's best.