The Food at Timothy Dean Bistro is Worth Fighting For—and You Might Have To
This location is closed
I’ve been thinking about the bowl of mussels I had at Timothy Dean Bistro, a praiseworthy new restaurant in Fells Point. These mollusks were perfect, every onyx shell open like a flower in full bloom, every mussel grit- and beard-free. The preparation of that particular dish, the Thai curry mussels ($9), was awfully good and strategically simple: lemon grass, spring onions, ample butter, a touch of curry. But it was the mussels themselves that elated me, and I asked the restaurant’s eponymous chef/owner about them on one of his frequent perambulations around the dining room. Dean told us about the Maine-based supplier he first met through his mentor, the late Jean-Louis Palladin, and how this fishmonger sends down daily, along with other specimen seafood, only the most perfect handpicked mussels. I’m convinced.
Dean’s up-from-the-scullery narrative includes long episodes with Palladin in Washington, a shorter sojourn in Paris with Alain Ducasse, and a several-year run with his own well-received restaurant at the St. Regis in D.C., all of which is only passably interesting to Baltimoreans who want to eat smart, delicious, and well-cooked food in an upwardly casual setting.
The opening menu here is smartly abbreviated. Better yet, the menu strikes me as true, albeit pricey, bistro fare, food that tight, well-prepped kitchens can execute with alacrity, and which is conceived with an impulse less to dazzle or baffle than to satisfy simply, with high-quality ingredients and classic preparations. Hence, there’s not much to say about an oven-roasted free-range chicken ($16) except that every bite from every surgically carved and curatorially displayed piece of it was tender, juicy, and infused with salt, pepper, and butter. This is an encouraging thing, a perfectly cooked chicken, and so were the smooth, buttery potatoes—here named L’Ami Louis in homage to a famous Parisian brasserie—it lay on. Kind of refreshing, too, the willful absence of anything green—an asparagus spear, un haricot vert—until, presumably, they come fully and locally to season.
Sage-scented roasted lamb chops ($23), ordered medium-rare, arrived slightly underdone, butter-knife tender, and crisscrossed over a bed of crisp and clean shredded savoy cabbage. Here, Dean knows that stinginess with sage makes lamb flavors sing. Dean pocks the barbecue-crisp skin of handsome Atlantic salmon fillet ($19) with just enough fennel seeds to add faint and interesting licorice flavor to every bite and places the fish over—yum—melted leeks.
Early courses were impressive, too. Don’t miss the creamy pleasure of Dean’s Palladin chestnut soup ($7), whose stock distills and balances perfectly the flavors of prosciutto, shallots, and duck foie gras. And order the Dean Caesar salad ($7) for the crunchy, bottle-formed Parmesan tulle that nestles hand-dressed, earthy greens. (Small flaw: useless croutons.) Dessert choices are limited here, and our waiter slightly oversold the chocolate cake ($8), which while pleasurable stopped short of intense choco-nirvana. The accompanying truffle-infused chocolate ice cream was weird.
The downstairs dining rooms are pretty and comfortable but vague in their intention—are they for all-night luxuriating or for short visits? We had to wait an hour and a half past our reservation to be seated. Ninety minutes is absurd, of course—I was curious to see how far the restaurant would go to make us feel better. Not very. They comped us a round of drinks (adroitly not comping us the soup we had hungrily consumed at the bar), but only after giving a table promised to us to someone who was louder and more insistent but who presumably doesn’t write a restaurant column, in which he could helpfully steer diners away from Saturday nights until Timothy Dean (the bistro) either figures out how to dislodge table-hogs or starts coughing up the comped drinks and/or appetizers at what I suggest be, oh, the 30-minute mark.