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Omnivore

Personality Crisis

The Food Can Improve, But This New Steakhouse Needs A Dťcor Makeover, Stat


Christopher Myers

Dunstin's

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 1/18/2006

The modest new restaurant Dunstinís Steakhouse and Seafood Grill has gutsily moved into the hallowed Highlandtown halls where Haussnerís made Baltimore dining history. Not only does this new place not in the least call to mind the what-museum-exploded-here? excess of Haussnerísóas if anything could, or would want toóit doesnít really resemble any restaurant, past or present, at all.

An outside banner adverstises Dunstinís availability as a banquet hall, and on the inside it looks like it could be converted back and forth in about five minutes. Dozens of tables are strewn around one enormous dining room, entirely green-carpeted but for one patch of parquet dance floor near the hostess stand. If Dunstinís has potential, itís as a neighborhood-based, family-style response to the glitzy and very expensive downtown steakhouses that are beyond either the means or desires of ordinary folks looking for a nice evening out. But this cavernous, impersonal ambiance is a serious turnoff. The wholesale indifference to aesthetics doesnít give you much hope for whatís to come, and, as it turned out, first impressions were accurate.

The menu itself positions Dunstinís on a mostly sensible path with nothing glamorous or remotely innovative about it: steaks, chicken dishes (e.g., Marsala, herb roasted, parmigiana), chops, and such best-loved seafood selections as stuffed lobster tail, pan-seared salmon, and crab imperial. Low-priced pasta dinners are offered, too, as are a very few old-world homey dishes like sour beef and dumplings and pot roast with mashed potatoes. Itís the kind of fare that works best when an experienced kitchen works with top-line ingredients.

Starters are an odd mix of classic American dining (clams casino, oysters Rockefeller) and pub grub (buffalo wings, crab balls, and colossal fried onion). We took a chance on pan-fried oysters ($9.95), and they were good, pleasantly crunchy, undermined only by a sweet, zestless cocktail sauce. A decent bowl of cream of crab soup ($5.75) served up buttery flavor and sherry highlights but was missing the finishing touch of nuanced spicing. A simple Caesar salad ($6.95) had good crunchy romaine lettuce and a zippy dressing, but cheese was missing and the croutons were soft.

None of the entrťes we tried pleased us at all. In these days when even the corner pub sends out artfully garnished plates, Dunstinís presentation feels halfhearted and a little awkward. Selected sides are placed haphazardly, even a bit sloppily, next to main items. Lamb chops ($19.95) come gratuitously perched over some incidental shredded lettuce. These are big, dark, and appetizing lamb chops, but they turned out muttony and fatty, and whatever ďspecial blend of spicesĒ was applied to them didnít make their way to the tongue.

Thereís not much wiggle room with prime rib. It either works, convincing the diner of its expertly treated premium quality, or it doesnít. Dunstinís slow-roasted prime rib, available in either 14-ounce ($20.95) or 16-ounce ($22.95) cuts, was dry, its surface bearing an unaccountable rusty color. It lacked the natural beef flavor of the best prime rib, and it was a chore eating through it.

A seafood dish didnít fare much better. Blackened scallops ($15.95), the success of which depends only on quality and minimal technique, failed on both counts. They showed up in an oval dish, swimming in a pool of acrid butter. Small of size, the scallops on top of the pile looked like they had been seared, but the ones on the bottom were undercooked. The dish may have spent a few uneventful moments under the broiler, itís hard to say.

Outfitted with celery and carrots, good old pot roast ($12.95) was a reasonable facsimile of the real home-cooked thing, but the meat didnít melt in the mouth or otherwise suggest it had been slowly cooked. The roast was encircled by bland, heavy garlic mashed potatoes, par for the course of sides hereósteakhouse fries were flavorless and underseasoned, a pasta salad floated in off-tasting oil.

Dunstinís was still awaiting its liquor license when we visited, and a cocktail or two would have helped the evening along. Other guests, some of whom had apparently already established themselves as regulars, appeared to have a better time than we wereóperhaps we ordered badly. The idea of a casual family-owned steakhouse is appealing, and with time the kitchen can improve. The weird and depressing dining room, however, requires critical care.

You got it while it was hot

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