Federal Hill Grille Offers Dishes You Wish Mom Would Make
Often a restaurant tries to be all things to all people and fails in its attempt. Mother's Federal Hill Grille (1113 S. Charles St.,  244-8686), next to the Cross Street Market, comes out of the exercise with a much better batting average than most. We tried Mother's on a Sunday night, and we brought along a real motherC.C.'s, to be preciseto share the experience. We weren't sure how we'd fit in with the twentysomething crowd, having passed 20 some time ago, but we decided to give it a go.
The twentysomethings in the front room, which houses the bar, billiard table, and the obligatory big television, politely made way to let us pass into the dining room, where exposed brick walls and a tin ceiling circumscribe a small space that has a surprisingly spacious feel.
Perusing the menu, we saw that Mother's offers something for every tastebar food, sandwiches, even a full mimeographed page of eclectic dinner specials. Naturally, we started with appetizers: a cup of Maryland crab soup ($2.95), a plate of 25-cent buffalo wings (the Sunday special), and Regi's chicken satay ($5.95). The soup, spicy and thick with vegetables and crab, met Mom's high expectations. And I liked the wingsnot too incendiary but big and meaty, paired with a blue-cheese dip laced with herbs. Only the satay disappointed. The hunks of breast tenderloin were too thick to soak up the flavor of the peanut sauce, and the meat was too tough. This was one of those times when less would have been morethin slices of chicken on delicate skewers would have made the dish more palatable and easier to chew.
By the time the entrées arrived, our sociable server was addressing C.C.'s mother as "Mom." He'd crayoned his initials on our paper tablecloth and asked how she'd liked the soup as he removed the empty cup and slid a half-pound of medium-sized steamed shrimp ($5.95) before her. The shellfish were thickly seasoned and accompanied by numerous lemon slices and an excellent cocktail sauce. Unfortunately, even though the shrimp proved tasty, the task of releasing them from their shells was arduous. Mom gave up halfway through, from sheer exhaustion.
My mahimahi fish and chips ($8.95) was a case of sheer overkill. The batter was too thick and soggy to create the crisp coating so necessary for proper fish and chips. So I ditched itI peeled off the grease-filled coating to reveal the mahimahi underneath, and ate the fish au naturel. Happily, it was delicious. Strangely, so were the chips. If the potato wedges had had been fried, they didn't show itthey were crisp and browned and grease-free. If only the mahimahi had been so lucky.
C.C. certainly lucked out in the entrée department. She ordered a special: beef tips, spinach, apples, and walnuts with a white-wine demi-glace ($16.95). Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? More like a dessert than a main course. But everything worked: the tender, flavorful meat, the crunch of apples and nuts, the leafy-green goodness of the spinach, the delicate sauce. The dish, a huge serving in itself, came with real mashed potatoes, crispy green beans, and chunks of peeled tomato.
The daily specials are where Mother's really gets eclectic. There were a lot of them Sunday, and they ran the creative gamut, from grilled salmon with pesto aioli and roasted red peppers ($14.95), jerk-seared pork tenderloin with fruit chutney and mashed sweet potatoes ($12.95), or sautéed chicken, roasted peppers, avocado, and eggplant over pasta ($12.95). Someone at Mother's is designing the kind of meals that Mommine, at least, and I'll bet yoursnever imagined.
When dessert time arrived, Mother's had another surprise in store for ushomemade ice cream. Our delightful server, who refilled our sodas and coffee without our having to ask (even once), told us there's a different flavor each week (vanilla is always available). We sampled a dish of banana-brownie. C.C. rolled her eyes heavenward on the first bite. "Fabulous," she sighed. I appreciated the hunks of chewy brownie, C.C. the strong shot of banana flavor. In comparison, Mother's Key lime pie ($3.95) was merely ordinary.
C.C. and her mom ran into one of the twentysomethings in the rest room. The young woman, trying in vain to balance her Budweiser on the lip of the sink, looked at them as if they might be escapees from Leisure World.
"You two out for a night on the town?" she asked. "That's so cute." It was 7 P.M.
"Better get us home," a laughing C.C. said upon returning from the ladies'. "We're in violation of old-farts' cur- few."