A Full-Scale Rehab Gives New Shine to Red Star
Remember the Red Star (  675-0212)? When I stumbled upon it a few years ago, it seemed like a relic from another era. It opened as a modest brick-and-mortar restaurant back in the mid-1980s, and enjoyed a brief vogue, but now I can hardly say why, other than it was always comfortable, cheerful, and a little bit off the beaten path. Situated south of Thames Street, on an odd, underdeveloped (but just wait) jut of Fells Point real estate, the original Red Star spent the last decade or so in harmless semi-anonymity.
But things have changed. The Red Star has been less renovated than completely rebuilt, and the result is the most thoroughly surprising makeover since they finished work on Clay Aiken. Where once there was a cozy but confining neighborhood joint there's now sheer open space, barn-sized, composed of solid brick and handsome wood. The scale and scope of the renovation is actually discombobulating; on an exploratory visit, it took studying an album of pre-renovation photographs to help me relate the new Red Star to the old.
Word of mouth has been steadily packing diners and drinkers into the Red Star on weekends. (Some of this might have to do with the large, free parking lot directly across the street. That's right: Fells Point, free parking.) It's such an impressive production that, considered along with the snazzy logo shirts the staff now wears, the whole thing verges on the jock bar, even on the corporate. On a recent Sunday night, though, what we experienced was a mini-revival in casual attitude. The staff has clearly been schooled to make customers happy; someone bothered to adjust the expensive lighting system as day turned to night; and the music, during our time there, somehow progressed smoothly from the Starland Vocal Band to Coldplay.
The opening menu appears to have been designed by someone with an eye on the marketplace and sensitivity to food costs. It's not risk-taking--except for specials, there are no entrées--but there's enough variety and invention to elevate the fare above pub grub. The basic outline consists of appetizers, salads (both appetizer- and entrée-sized), pizzas, and panini, wraps, and sandwiches. Vegetarians have more options than usual.
To begin, we ordered from a selection of eight appetizers the corn-and-crab fritters ($7) and something called crazy-eyed shrimp ($10), along with the parma pizza ($10), which was topped with prosciutto, capicola, pancetta, onions, olives, and fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Some disagreement about the fritters: We all were impressed with the flavor and volume of the interior crabmeat and fresh corn, but a few of us were put off by the sponginess of the batter. The shrimp dish, meanwhile, was baffling. We dug the slightly gummy ginger fish sauce, in which four jumbos swam, but the presentation--pita slices circling the deep bowl of sauce--was neither attractive nor sensible. Wrong bread for sopping good sauce, too.
Excellent pizza! The crust was thin, crispy, and well-seasoned, and the toppings looked and tasted like topnotch meats and cheeses. Other pizzas listed appealing toppings like Thai chicken ($8), roasted garlic ($7), and seafood ($12).
A steak salad ($10) impressed us with the care with which it had been composed and plated: Greens had been freshly chopped, then topped with mushrooms, roasted onions, and grape tomatoes, and finally circled with the good marinated flank steak. The Spanish crab salad ($12) will satisfy admirers of unadulterated crabmeat, which when tossed as here in a fresh, balsamic-lemon-laced green salad, makes a light, summery meal. Both the steak and crab headlining these entrée salads were portioned fairly as well.
The Red Star's Roma sausage sandwich ($8) was the best panino we've had in Baltimore--thick bread, grilled brown with ridges, with the grilling sealing in the flavors of the fat, spicy sausage, onions, and peppers. I think they have a real panini oven back there. A winner, and encouragement to try the menu's other panini and sandwiches. But we're still not gonna eat no wraps.
Keep in mind with all of this that it might well matter when you go to Red Star. Weekend nights probably won't allow you the casual pace we enjoyed, and the high-backed booths that line the perimeter might be in shorter supply. There's another dining room upstairs, though, that might provide respite from crowds and smoke. Hell,