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Million Dollar, Maybe

From Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Comes the Almost-Golden Talent of Taste


Christopher Myers

Taste

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 3/23/2005

Taste, the capstone of the belvedere Square renovation project, makes a stupendous first impression (510 E. Belvedere Ave., [443] 278-9001). Reclaimed from what was a Hess shoe store, the bar at the entrance evokes a Twin Peaks grandeur, all sheer stone walls and capacious dimensions. It’s great-looking, and it suggests, on the part of chef-proprietor Ann Nault, who cooked at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch, a kind of commitment and confidence. Maybe even a little bit of cowgirl swagger.

The food here doesn’t dazzle or enlighten, it just tastes very good. The menu is deliberately conservative; some of Taste’s initial marketing smugly debased such fin-de-siècle restaurant innovations as small plates and sushi in favor of solidly made old-fashioned cuisine, like serious steaks, seafood, and poultry. (And talk about smug, that name, “Taste”—sheesh.) But what ended up distinguishing a recent meal at Taste from many others was simply how competently it was executed.

Two themes dominated my early scouting reports on this place. One had to do with the drop in scale and drama as diners make their way up the stairs from the bar into the dining room, which is much more subdued and, at first glance, ordinary. But it’s pretty and sophisticated, outfitted with ample banquette seating and partitioned off with floor-to-ceiling rope “ladders” that contribute a needed bit of whimsy. I’d also heard that the service, considering Taste’s fine-dining ambiance and prices, was unpolished. This was true, perhaps by design, as though Taste was anxious about its staff coming across as slick or stuffy. But I’d encourage them to err on the side of pretension—the food deserves it.

Take the salmon on a plank ($24.95), a simple and pleasure-giving dish. Marinated in miso and herbs, a wild-tasting fillet of salmon is cooked, and presented on, a cedar plank and drizzled with a plucky wasabi cream sauce. Marinading infused the salmon with warm, rounded flavors and, better yet, kept the flesh moist and juicy. Wasabi, so many times a facile and gratuitous ingredient, here seemed like a thoughtfully considered decision, adding just the bite the mellow fish wanted.

For New Zealand lamb Pacifica ($28.95), soaking a picture-perfect rack of lamb in rum stimulated the springtime flavors of the succulent meat. The inherent lambness was not obliterated but enhanced and explored. Vertical presentational flourishes—the full rack was cut in two and nestled into a tent over creamy garlic mashed potatoes—come across here, too, as decisive acts rather than arbitrary or decadent.

The kitchen is not always so painstakingly serious, and there are flashes of celebrity-chef flair. The menu offers, for instance, a plain-and-simple roasted free-range chicken but also this humdinger: crushed plantains coating a tasty breast of chicken ($17.95) that’s been stuffed with ample, thinly sliced prosciutto and provolone cheese. Butter-knife tender, and topped with a piquant cilantro sauce, each bite of the stuffed chicken yielded pleasure.

The beginning of our meal, except for a dull marsala-drenched ragout of wild mushrooms ($7.25), was equally inspiring. A flash in the oven gives pleasurable crunch to a baked Caesar salad ($5.50) that includes the bonus delight of deep-fried artichoke hearts; coarse and creamy grits play beautifully against the sea-and-farm flavors of white wine-sautéed shrimp and prosciutto.

It’s assuring, too, to see a fully realized dessert menu—not just regulars like apple fritters, molten chocolate cake, and crème brûlée, but a gut-bustingly dazzling banana-caramel cheesecake burrito ($7.25), too.

Weekend reservations have been hard to come by at Taste, which appears to have filled a gaping northside niche for upscale dining. Clumsy touches like commercial tea bags are greatly outnumbered by lovely ones like the at-table pouring from shakers into cocktail glasses. Beware, of course, the specialty drink menu that obnoxiously omits prices—one of them will set you back $12. Although our food came out at a reasonable pace, the menu cautions diners that the kitchen takes as much time as it needs to make its good food.

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