The Halogen Diet
Red Maple (930 N. Charles St.,  547-0149) looks as stunning today as it did when it opened in December 2001, and there seems to be renewed vigor in the scheduling of special events and themed evenings. It's so good-looking that not everyone has always taken its Asian-inspired tapas menu seriously, but the food is totally groovy--we go for the salmon, avocado, and tuna tartare; or sautéed shrimp with blood oranges and caramelized fennel. Go early, escape the crowds and those notorious cover charges, and, for Pete's sake, wear something nice.
There's more beautiful Asian-inspired fusion in the swanky contemporary dining rooms of EurAsian Harbor (711 Eastern Ave.,  230-9992), located in the Pier 5 Hotel. From the Steve de Castro, the restaurateur who brought Ruth's Chris steakhouses and Babalu Grill to Baltimore, EurAsian Harbor's stimulating mix of cuisines includes such cunning creations as Tibetan bouillabaisse and salmon wrapped in rice paper and served with jasmine rice and bok choy. Appetizers tend toward the gargantuan, and meals could be made of them during the bar's happy hour, particularly the greaseless Vietnamese spring rolls or grilled wasabi shrimp.
And speaking of Babalu Grill (32 Market Place,  234-9898), this smartly conceived restaurant has found a winning formula in the Power Plant Live! complex, bringing agreeable Cuban cuisine into a sprawling, colorful, and lively space. Ceviche arrives in oversized martini glasses, and the shredded flank steak and slow-marinated pork typify the hearty entrées.
Still more inventive Asian-influenced food served in sexy, dramatic settings is available only a few blocks away at Roy's (720 B Aliceanna St.,  659-0099), a link in a successful chain of upscale restaurants specializing in what its proprietor, Roy Yamaguchi, calls "Hawaiian fusion." The ambitious menu changes almost daily but might include a veal sweetbread appetizer and such less-than-ubiquitous island fishes as shutome, prepared in a Humboldt Fog blue-cheese sauce, or a chiso-crusted ono.
Down in Locust Point at Soigné (554 E. Fort Ave.,  659-9898), Chef Edward Kim, late of Ixia, has been turning diners on with his inventive, judiciously prepared food, while Kim's old chopping grounds, the sleekly handsome Ixia (518 N. Charles St.,  727-1800), has established itself as an oasis for style-chasing Baltimoreans in search of like-minded revelers. Hardly recognizable from the old days when Louie's Bookstore and Café operated in this Mount Vernon space, owner Un Kim has created here an unapologetic shrine to the good life.
Located providentially next door to the Charles Theatre is the Tapas Teatro Café (1711 N. Charles St.,  332-0110), and dinner-and-a-movie in Baltimore hasn't been the same since it opened. The selection of tapas here is more traditionally Spanish, and savvy diners like to come here on weeknights, when the place is a little less crowded, but this glowing, spirit-lifting space has been consistently packed from day one. Regulars know, too, that innovative specials have helped offset a little fatigue with the standard menu. What remains unknown is whether the eventual reopening of the Charles Street bridge will detract from what has been one of the best outdoor dining spaces in town.
Down in Federal Hill, Bicycle (1444 Light St.,  234-1900) and Vespa (1117-21 S. Charles St.,  385-0355) have succeeded in the time-honored formula, probably perfected in Manhattan, of creating an interesting space by packing lots of drama into small spaces. Bicycle, with its nervy-colored walls and modish furniture, sports the clean, contemporary good looks of a cool art gallery. The vegetarian-friendly menu includes the Thai Nirvana, pan-seared marinated tofu wrapped in spring rolls, and a seasonal vegetable sauté. Vespa emphasizes Italian cuisine on its eclectic menu, all served in an assertively cosmopolitan and happily cacophonous dining room.
A regard for stylish settings has long been the calling card for the Spike and Charlie's Restaurant Group, which now includes Atlantic and Joy America Café, as well as its flagship restaurant, which has established itself as the place to go before or after a concert at the Meyerhoff or the Lyric. Spike and Charlie's (1225 Cathedral St.,  752-8144) deploys curtains, curves, and multiple levels to create its dramatic setting, the centerpiece of which is a wine bar that sizzles with urban energy on concert nights. The seasonally changing menu usually includes one terrific duck dish, and the grilled pizza--topped with Ostrowski's sausage, perhaps, or Great Hill blue cheese--is a delectable bargain.
A few years ago, when its current management took over Joy America Café (800 Key Highway,  244-6500), the restaurant perched atop the American Visionary Art Museum, it completely overhauled the menu, replacing the previous regime's awe-inspiring if self-conscious stack-'em-high dishes with exemplary and intoxicating fare inspired by Southwestern, Caribbean, and Latin-American cuisine. An appetizer of guacamole prepared at the table from ripe avocados is a joy-inducing creation, as are the endlessly thoughtful permutations of Tijuana Caesar salads, tamales, and chalupas. The views from here of the Inner Harbor are terrific, and, of course there's the amazing museum itself. A deal-clincher for those difficult-to-impress cousins from out of town.
The décor at Atlantic (2400 Boston St.,  675-4565), over at the Can Company in Canton, has lately gone through some minor renovations, at least partly in response, one supposes, to those who felt the place too austere. The Can Company complex has become a beacon for the young and the restless, and Atlantic, with its calming interiors, is the sturdy centerpiece of it all. The preparations on the extensive menu emphasize simplicity (health-inducing rice bowls, filled with things like tuna or salmon) and creativity (a trio of Maryland appetizer, combining a crispy crab cake, a wasabi and cucumber crab salad, and a sherried crab dip). Weekday happy hours feature beckoning deals on sushi.
If simple American good looks have begun to define upscale restaurant design in Baltimore, Sotto Sopra (405 N. Charles St.,  625-0534) presents voluptuous European glamour, with rich fabrics, seductive lighting, and extravagant fittings. And the contemporary Italian menu keeps pace with the décor, with an ever-morphing menu created by an exchange system of young chefs. Typically enticing items include gnocchi stuffed with foie gras, duck-stuffed ravioli, and a pine nut- and pistachio-encrusted fillet of beef. The modestly priced menu of tapas served at weekday happy hours and the selection of desserts--hazelnut crêpe bundles, anyone?--encourages casual visits.
Openings of and changes to a few restaurants occurred too close to deadline for us to do much more than tell you that they exist. Red Tapas, operating out of the Redwood Trust nightclub (200 E. Redwood St.,  539-1330), is the baby of Chef's Expressions' caterers, who have loaded the opening menu with such tempting tidbits as espresso-rubbed fillet of beef, lobster burritos, and 40-clove garlic chicken. Power Plant Live!'s popular Café Asia (614 Water St.,  528-1925) has been renamed Red Coral, although its proprietors have indicated that little about the pan-Asian fusion menu or the stylish lounge space will be changing radically.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201