Blackened Ron and Nancy
Charleston (1000 Lancaster St.,  332-7373), at Inner Harbor East, is not simply one of the city's top restaurants. It's also a prime example of both regionally inspired (South Carolina's Low Country) cuisine and the cult of the celebrity chef. Co-owner/chef Cindy Wolfe is the shiniest star in the local culinary firmament; besotted diners sneak peeks as she rules the stove in Charleston's open kitchen, and when she walks through the dining room an excited buzz of whispers rises in her wake. (The shrimp grits with andouille and tasso ham are reason enough for the love.) Every meal we've ever had at Charleston has been fabulous, but standouts were the fried-green-tomato "sandwich" with lobster and crab hash and the pepper-rubbed pork loin with corn-whiskey-and-black-bean sauce over cornmeal cakes. The dining is pricey, but worth it.
Prudhomme himself would feel right at home at Fells Point's Louisiana (1708 Aliceanna St.,  327-2610) amid the Southern-gothic atmosphere of dark wood and flickering gas lamps. The menu is not quite so Creole as the name would suggest--French and American classics co-star with Cajun--but the bayou-inspired dishes shine brightest. Sherry-laced crab bisque and crawfish gumbo should be at the top of your tasting list.
For Southwestern food in Baltimore, the field is limited to two restaurants: the Austin Grill (2400 Boston St.,  534-0606) and Gecko's (2318 Fleet St.,  732-1961), both in Canton. When the choice is between a local joint and a national chain, we almost always go for the local, but our experiences at Gecko's have been uneven. The menu aims high--grilled jerk chicken and sweet-potato quesadillas, chipotle catfish, roasted corn and crab chowder--but the results are is not always as delightful as they sound in print. That said, when Gecko's is good, it's very good. There are more than 20 tequilas, truly terrific chips and salsa, and a fun, funky atmosphere.
We like Austin Grill for its green chile sauce, hand-rolled chicken tamales, and enchiladas with a variety of sauces--suiza, ancho, chipotle. We're also eternally grateful that the bar has Shiner Bock on draft and margaritas with fresh lime juice. Eating at the Austin Grill doesn't exactly remind us of the Southwest, but it sure makes us remember it fondly.
It wasn't enough to spend in the '80s; you had to spend in public. Ideally, this meant snagging a coveted reservation for a high-profile table at Spago or Montrachet; as Bruno Kirby said in When Harry Met Sally (1989), "Restaurants are the new theater." As restaurants rose in status, visibility, and (especially) price, some chefs took advantage of their enhanced prestige to play with their food. Borrowing approaches and ingredients from different, often disparate, ethnic cuisines, cooks combined them into a something that eventually became known as "fusion." One not entirely successful example of the approach was Baltimore's own Ja-Fe, a Japanese/French fusion restaurant that operated for a couple of years in the late '80s.
One of the city's leading fusion restaurants today, Federal Hill's Bicycle (1444 Light St.,  234-1900) bills itself as a "global bistro." With chef (and avid cyclist) Barry Rumsey cooking up freewheeling Latin-spiced food, high points of the regular board of fare include rockfish with Thai red curry and banana chutney, beggar's purses with scallops and goat cheese, and Rumsey's slow-roasted Cuban pork with red beans and rice. Specials can be especially stimulating, so listen carefully to your enthusiastic and well-informed server. Bicycle ain't cheap--most entrées run $18 to $25--but relatively well-priced wines ease the sting.
Newcomer Soigné (554 E. Fort Ave.,  659-9898) is doing pan-Asian down in South Baltimore, and doing it very well indeed. It's painful to choose among the variety of appetizers and entrées: foie gras with scallops and mango in a sake-mirin flavored veal demiglace, or smoky, macadamia-crusted marlin with tropical fruit. The lemongrass parfait, with pineapple-mint salsa and rose peppercorns, is extraordinary--a peerless dessert invention.
We love to browse the tapas-like "taste plates" at Sascha's 527 (527 N. Charles St.,  539-8880). There are 13 to 15 on any given night, most $8.50 or less (seafood plates are a bit pricier). Look for the potato pancakes with crême fraiche, the Cajun coconut shrimp, or the portobello mushroom fries. The "big plates," a bargain at $15 or less, are the forum for the chef's talents as a saucier, including the likes of trendy smoked-peach "ketchup " or apricot mustard.
But there was MORE going on in the '80s than conspicuous consumption: Between 1980 and 1990, the United States' Latino population increased more than five times faster than the population as a whole (53 percent to 9.5 percent). Much of this growth was attributable to immigration from Mexico, South America, and, especially, war-torn Central America. By the time sales of salsa surpassed those of ketchup (in '91, to the tune of $40 million), la comida Latina was a featured ingredient in the American melting pot.
Los Amigos (5506 Harford Road,  444-4220) bills itself as a Mexican restaurant to bring in the crowds, but the menu's real standouts are the Peruvian dishes, like ceviche mixto. Our new favorite ceviche in town, this version mixes shrimp, scallops, clams, and fat morsels of fish with lime juice, cilantro, garlic, and chile in a lettuce-leaf shell. Lomo saltado is an enjoyable sauté of beef, onions, tomatoes, and french fries, and the camarones con arroz (shrimp marinated with peppers, onions, and tomatoes, served with rice, guacamole, and tortillas) is swell.
Central America was not the decade's only political and cultural hot spot. The '80s also saw the deepening of the Caribbean's role in U.S. life. There was 1980's Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees, 1983's "liberation" of Grenada, and the 1986 flight from Haiti of President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier. Amid poverty and instability, many Caribbean people left their native islands for the States, and grocery stores and restaurants emerged to serve the population--which no longer restricted itself to city centers in the Northeast. Migrant Jamaican workers picked fruit from Maine to California; Dominicans worked in Midwestern meat-packing houses.
Although Baltimore wasn't a leading destination for these migrants, it does have its share of Caribbean restaurants. The pre-eminent one is downtown's tiny Carolyn's Café (213 Penn St.,  752-3896), where cherubic chef Ras Doobie cooks up complexly flavored Jamaican food. The menu varies, but we've been enchanted by the curried goat, chicken fricassee, spicy steamed fish--and every single kind of meat that hostess/waitress/ bartender Queen Nzinga has ever offered us cooked with Ras Doobie's incendiary jerk sauce. Thankfully Carolyn's Café has a liquor license--Red Stripes help douse the fire, along with pillowy coco bread and flavorful rice and peas. Among desserts, largely the Queen's handiwork, the citrusy coconut pie is sublime, but the simple charm of "Jus' Plain Good Cake" is hard to refuse.
Caribbean Kitchen (353 N. Calvert St.,  837-2274) is a simple downtown storefront operation turning out stellar Caribbean food in the shadow of the Orleans Street overpass. The spicy, gamy curry goat is a forceful experience, while the very fine jerk chicken has flavor and a survivable level of heat. Thick grilled fish filets are another winner, and callaloo with spicy collard greens appears as a weekly special. Definitely spring for an extra side of fried sweet plantain slices, because the one or two that come with the platter won't be enough. But otherwise, servings are enormous and prices are low.
At Northwest Baltimore's Island Café (6322 Reisterstown Road,  318-8202), the strongest points are the jerk chicken, the brown stew oxtail, and the red snapper escaveitch style--and the relaxed attitude. The food is complemented by sides of rice and peas and buttery cabbage; the atmosphere is complimented by a full bar and a variety of imported Jamaican soft drinks.
Price Point (3/3/2010)
EAT: City Paper's annual dining guide
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Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple
Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it
Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201