Local Fine-Dining Favorite Matures Into Its Reputation
I had visited the Carlyle Club (500 W. University Parkway,  243-5454) only once, when I reviewed it about two years ago. I wrote then about the aromatic pleasures of its Lebanese cuisine coupled with my frustration with an incoherent menu that didn’t separate appetizers from entrées and what came across as a lack of culinary focus. I also remember feeling disoriented in the Carlyle Club’s formal dining room, which is set on the ground floor of a Homewood-area hotel/apartment building.
The Carlyle Club, however, often comes up in conversations about favorite Baltimore restaurants, and it’s been particularly on my mind lately as I’ve been thinking about places that came and went from the city this year. Nothing can replace the unique worlds of Marconi’s and the old Woman’s Industrial Exchange—their identities developed over long decades. But the becalmed elegance of the Carlyle Club and its sister restaurant, the beloved Ambassador Dining Room, work a particular kind of civic nostalgia—the world of gentility—that resonates clearly just now in Baltimore’s fitful evolution from gritty to glamorous dining. “Gentility” is a complicated and self-conscious condition, embracing issues of class, status, and manners, and I think this feeling is what I bridled against during my first visit, when the food and overly formal service felt so awkward.
I had a much better time at the Carlyle Club on a recent visit. Two years of inhabiting a space makes a difference, and the fit feels better now. (The service remains curious, veering from aloof to intensely friendly.) The menu is enormously improved, both in arrangement—salads, appetizers, and entrées are now listed separately—and in its clarity about Lebanese cuisine. (More complete descriptions and information about preparations would still help.) What felt fuzzily Middle Eastern before now registers as a single entity—more elegantly considered, more composed than other Middle East cuisines, closer really to the Persian food diners have come to know at Towson’s Orchard Market and Café.
Carlyle didn’t list a shared appetizer platter when I first visited but it does now. This mezze ($10.95) assembles portions of baba ghanouj, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, an unnamed cheese, and potato salad. The offerings of each are notably small, arguably an asset, providing mere nibbles. Mint-flecked cubes of warm and firm potato salad come off best; they arouse the taste buds. Other components are simply serviceable, and it might be better to order appetizers à la carte at Carlyle. We loved and fought for bites of the kibbeh ($7.95), mellow fried balls of bulgur wheat stuffed with savory ground lamb and pine nuts. Suzuk ($6.95) is another winner, onion-sautéed links of beef and lamb sausage with deep, winey flavor.
The star entrée of the meal was the butta meshwi ($14.95), roasted duck breast in pomegranate sauce. This was perfectly handled duck, fatty enough to impart great flavor but lean enough to eat comfortably. Tender and meaty and with lusciously crispy skin, the entire dish was elevated by the pungent full flavor of pomegranate, a fruit that uplifts without cloying. Also highly recommended is the lahm al shahi ($17.95), superiorly tender and tasty cubes of lamb nestled in a velvety yogurt sauce flecked with roasted slivered almonds and date pieces. The result was an alluring play of texture and sweet and savory flavors.
Carlyle’s seared Chilean sea bass ($18.95) didn’t look like much. Its application of pomegranate sauce looked halfhearted. But it tasted grand, the fish crispy on the skin, buttery on the inside, with, as it turned out, just enough fruit flavor to keep things interesting. Samak harra ($18.95), described as fresh whole fish baked with cilantro, arrives at the table fried instead—and what kind of fish is it? It was still a pleasure to eat, yielding plenty of sweet fish meat but not much distinct cilantro flavor.
Where Carlyle stumbles is where I expected them to excel—the assembly of fully pleasing plates. The rice here is bland (some aroma is wanted), the steamed vegetables banquet-style and pedestrian. Some finishing touches would make a big difference.
The fit is better. And yet, there’s something queer about the Carlyle. It’s in the lamps, the carpeting, the hush, and it took me two visits to relax among it all, even enjoy it for its weirdness. This, maybe, is how a place becomes a place.