23rd Degree takes aim at tropical fare, but winds up off course
This location is closed
A New restaurant, the 23rd Degree, has moved into the cultural-district spot vacated by the long-running Spike and Charlie’s, and it’s off to a wobbly start (1225 Cathedral St.,  752-8144). Nothing about our disappointing and expensive meal suggested a return visit anytime soon.
In the location just a stone’s throw from the Meyerhoff, the new owners have pulled down the memorable “shower curtain” that separated Spike and Charlie’s frenetic front bar from its dining room, which is a harmless enough choice. But the changes to the dining room itself are woeful. Battleship-gray carpeting and awkwardly spaced campus-tavern chairs and tables have effectively torpedoed the space’s feel-great potential. Thoughtfully programmed, upbeat music and fresh flowers help a little; table linen would help a lot more.
The menu, in this early phase, consists of about a half-dozen appetizers and entrées, a couple of soups, and three salads. The restaurant’s name refers to the latitudinal degree marks (23.5) of the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and, by association, the cuisines represented by the tropical cultures between those boundaries. Taro, coconut milk, and ancho peppers pop in various dishes, but the printed menu doesn’t embrace the tropical theme coherently, and whatever similarities there might be among cuisines of the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and North Africa are left for the thoughtful diner to discover alone.
The failure to conform to its own high concept would be forgivable, even a blessing, if the food were persuasive. Time and again, the presented plates didn’t live up to their menu descriptions, and in a few cases there were apparent omissions and changes. No red chilis, minced garlic, or ginger topped a plate of raw oysters ($10), which were otherwise well-served by a decent mignonette sauce. A poisson cru ($11), the Tahitian version of ceviche, was absent the promised tossing of tomatoes and sweet peppers, but that was the least of it problems. A lime-treated mélange of halibut, tuna, scallops and crab, this version was overdone to an unappetizing, uniform white, and a surfeit of coconut milk made flabby what should have been zippy. A bowl of mussels steamed in curry butter and Indian pale ale ($9) did at least resemble the menu description, but it arrived tepid, and the curry sauce was unpleasantly bitter. We didn’t finish them.
After a long wait, entrées appeared, and they looked, with their heavy sprinklings of parsley and piles of zucchini and yellow squash (the world’s most boring side dish), like the specials you’d see at a neighborhood tavern. Of our choices, filet African ($25)—well-seasoned, adroitly pan-seared beef medallions topped with red bananas—came closer than anything to a fully realized, satisfying offering. Forkfuls of beef and banana together gave great pleasure, even without the fried horseradish tantalizingly described on the menu. Unfortunately, both here and on the roast pork entrée ($18), the accompanying garlic-mashed starch, which may or may not have been malanga—a tropical tuber more closely related to taro root than (the menu’s description of) sweet potatoes—arrived cold. The pork itself was otherwise a tender pink boneless beauty, serviced nicely with a snappy but too-starchy gravy.
The pan-fried lobster that topped a bowl of udon noodles ($23) was tough and thoroughly lacking sweetness, and the scallops weren’t much better. Udon noodles made me expect a light Asian broth, but this sauce, a lemon grass-scented velouté, was heavy going, and the dish was overwhelmingly bland. A tandoor-cooked “airline-cut” chicken breast (with the wing still attached) ($17) was overdone, with most of its Indian flavor coming not from how it was cooked but from the yogurt-masala paste that topped it. A side order of burned naan was the worst thing on the table.
Picking over the rubble of a disappointing visit, I unearthed a shard of something that looked like hope: a staff so welcoming and determined that, with some effort, they might pull it off. The tropical cuisine idea still has some potential, but it’s not what the neighborhood—and symphony patrons—could use right now.