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Eat Feature

Exit 11

Interstate 95, Downtown Baltimore

Posted 2/23/2000

Depart the Beltway via I-95 north, take one of the flyway exits off the interstate, and downtown dining opens up before you. Choose your point of entry: Martin Luther King Boulevard for Hollins and Lexington markets; Russell Street or I-395 for the Inner Harbor, business district, and Federal Hill; Key Highway for the burgeoning delights of the new neighborhood-most-likely-to, Locust Point. Downtown is your oyster, friends—dive for a pearl.

Steak is serious business downtown, and the food mavens insist beef is back. It's certainly back with a vengeance at Ruth's Chris Steak House (600 Water St., [410] 783-0033), where the artfully aged, marvelously marbled beef is presented tableside—raw—for your selection. When it returns, cooked to your order and awash in butter, and you take that first bite, you'll forget what it's costing you. Ruth's Chris also boasts a vast wine cellar downstairs and the Havana Club upstairs, where you can repair for post-slaughter brandy and cigars.

At Shula's Steakhouse (101 W. Fayette St. [Omni Inner Harbor Hotel], [410] 385-6601), the coach urges you to go deep, make an end run, and snag that 48-ounce porterhouse. Eat the whole thing and perhaps your fellow patrons will hoist you on their shoulders for a triumphal tour of the dining field. After a meal like that, hope they carry you to your car as well. Of course, lesser appetites can be appeased, in the dining room or in the adjacent sports bar, where your pockets needn't be quite so deep.

If downtown's parade of cholesterol on the hoof has you craving something shelled or finned, head harborside. McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant (711 Eastern Ave., [410] 234-1300) has fresh fish flown in from all over. Sure, the place is crawling with tourists, but don't let that keep you from enjoying the variety of mollusks on the half shell or the appealing happy-hour specials designed to fill you up but not slow you down. It's also a posh place from which to watch the sun set on the water.

Should you prefer to sample your seafood like a proper Bostonian, cross the street and stroll down to Legal Sea Foods (100 E. Pratt St., [410] 332-7360), where you can savor the clam chowder that's been served, they say, at seven presidential inaugurations. Observe the tourists savoring their first bite of Maryland crab and wondering where it's been all their lives. Conquer the fried-seafood platter—a mountain of clams, scallops, shrimp, and haddock—or sample gumbo spicy enough to unravel your socks.

Don your gloves (the white ones) and hat—or, failing that, find a genteel woman of a certain age who possesses both items, and whisk her to a Baltimore institution since Civil War days, the Woman's Industrial Exchange (333 N. Charles St., [410] 685-4388). Go for breakfast or lunch, and mind your manners with the servers, most of whom are of an age at which you should be waiting on them. Bouillon and aspic are de rigueur here, but if the thought leaves you queasy, or hungry, try the salads—tuna, chicken, or shrimp, with some tasty homemade biscuits. Rally behind one of our remaining bastions of bygone days.

For the flip side of bygone, sidle a block north to Sotto Sopra (405 N. Charles St., [410] 625-0534), a grand opera of a restaurant with a vaulted blue ceiling, larger-than-life mural, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere. We're not talking cheap eats here, but then, you'd expect to shell out for the likes of pappardelle in a ragout of wild boar, or risotta with mascarpone and squid, scallops, and shrimp. Leave room for the house-made ice creams and sorbets. Sit back, savor the slick service, and feel like a swell.

Afghan food means never having to look at pumpkin the same way again. If you have any doubts about the myriad uses to which Satan's favorite squash can be put, try the silky puréed-pumpkin soup at Silk Road (336 N. Charles St., [410] 385-9013), downtown dispenser of Kabul cooking. It's not just for Halloween any more, you know.

Since Baltimore elected a mayor whose surname starts with an "O" and an apostrophe, a lot of folks are suddenly celebrating their auld-sod roots, whether they actually have any or not. But Mick O'Shea's (328 N. Charles St., [410] 539-7504) is no paddy-come-lately; it was Irish before Irish was cool in this town. For years it hosted not only Hizzoner but Hizzoner's band, O'Malley's March, along with other Irish rock and traditional outfits. O'Shea's pours a mean Guinness, offers a menu of American chow and time-tested Irish pub grub (not just the ubiquitous corned beef and cabbage but also shepherd's pie and bangers and mash), and provides roomy booths for large parties to quaff and chat.

While some like it hot, others prefer it, well, raw. For them, there is no finer destination than Kawasaki (413 N. Charles St., [410] 659-7600), grand old master of the (admittedly rather young) sushi tradition in Bawlmer. Grab a table, or a floor mat by the window overlooking the Charles Street bustle. The sushi is outstanding, reliably fresh, and perfectly prepared, but don't skip the tantalizing appetizers. After all, you've come here to escape the hurly-burly, so breathe in the steam from the hot towel your server proffers, loosen your clothing, sip a sake, and unwind.

But hey, if it's hurly-burly you want, hurly-burly you can get. Return to the harbor and get in line with the out-of-towners for a truly deafening repast at the Hard Rock Café (601 E. Pratt St., [410] 347-7625). The ambiance, replete with assorted rock paraphernalia, feels trendy, but the food is down to earth, and most of the prices are too (at least for a ginormous multinational conglomerate), which leaves something in your pocket for a browse through the gift shop, which is, after all, the point.

Your next stop for loud crowds and walls full of memories is a few steps away at the ESPN Zone (601 E. Pratt St., [410] 685-3776). The downstairs houses a bar, dining area, and screening room. The menu, along with the prices, is ambitious. The guys from your favorite all-sports network don't come around so much anymore now that there's a Zone in New York, but that just means you won't have to dodge the cameras and cables as you take your inner adolescent for a workout upstairs in the interactive sports gallery, where you can hang glide, slam dunk, smash a puck, or ride a filly to Preakness glory, all without breaking a sweat.

If you're more in the mood for food than sports, hit Harborplace's Cheesecake Factory (201 E. Pratt St. [Pratt Street Pavilion], [410] 234-3990)—but don't blame us for the quandary that ensues. To wit: Once you've downed an overwhelming appetizer, a sizable salad, or an amazingly ample sandwich or entrée, we defy you to find room down there for even a bite of cheesecake. On the other hand, if you start with the cheesecake, a mile high and available in nearly 40 flavors, you'll never make it to lunch or dinner. And for heaven's sake, if Mom still insists that you clean your plate, leave the old girl home.

If you can drag yourself away from the fascinating and bizarre offerings of the American Visionary Arts Museum, pause to recover in the museum's Joy America Café (800 Key Highway, [410] 244-6500) and sample the visionary fare of empire builders Spike and Charlie Gjerde. Nothing is mundane here, hon, and the view is commanding. The food flies, soars, leans, tilts. Gastronomy's bad boys are turning up the heat with Southwestern and Latino flavors, so blow the dust off your taste buds.

On the other hand, you can leave the hype behind at Locust Point's Hull Street Blues Café (1222 Hull St., [410] 727-7476). Homemade flavor, variety, and a reasonable price make Hull Street's one of the best Sunday-brunch deals in town (and one of the most popular, so come early). We prefer the Commodore Room, replete with nautical motif and roaring fire. Drop in early for the Sunday brunch but do call ahead. Fresh ingredients, homemade flavor, variety, and a reasonable price make this one of the best brunch deals in town. Drop in for dinner, snag a nightly special like lobster or prime rib, and watch your cares go up with the smoke. If it's Thursday, hang around for the weekly trivia contest at the bar.

At Pazza Luna (1401 E. Clement St., [410] 727-1212), the mood is pure Sinatra and the food is pure Italian. Nothing is bargain-priced at this two-story rowhouse, but culinary greatness doesn't come cheap. Soups are silken, salads theatrical, and don't even get us started on the pasta sauces or the veal Marsala. If your trust fund is generous, this is the place to take someone you want to impress. If your portfolio is pitiful, throw yourself on the mercy of a rich uncle. We won't ask too many questions about where you got the stash.

Little Havana (1325 Key Highway, [410] 837-9903) pays a tribute to the cooking of our island neighbors to the south: black beans and rice, hearty stews, Cuban pork sandwiches. Your stomach no habla Espanol? Not to worry. Little Havana offers fresh fish and a variety of milder preparations. Alcohol, however, has been known to cross the language barrier, so grab a glass of sangria or a cerveza, greet the sunset on the waterfront deck, or shoot some pool until your comida Cubana (Cuban meal) is ready.

Down in Federal Hill you're faced with an embarrassment of riches in the dining department. One of our favorites is Mothers Federal Hill Grille (1113 S. Charles St., [410] 244-8686), where the young servers and twentysomething crowd will be sweet to your mother if you bring her. We did, and she really got busy with the steamed shrimp, while we enjoyed mahi mahi and chips, Buffalo wings, and some of the daily specials that combine old favorites with seasonal ingredients for dishes that sound odd but taste great. Watch the game at the bar, or watch the cooks at work in the cozy dining room.

You might want to ditch Mom before heading over to Boomerang Pub (1110 S. Charles St., [410] 727-2333), the quintessential pub-crawl destination. Easygoing bartenders welcome you, and there are enough odd niches and levels in this former bank (including a neon-lit vault) to hide out for hours. Play pool under the huge Aussie-outback mural, focus those bloodshot eyes on one of three sports-blaring TVs, or actually try the victuals, from Kangaroo Pinwheels (!) to prime rib, with lots of interesting nonmeat choices in between and inexpensive weekday specials for those who haven't hit the bank yet.

Corks (1026 S. Charles St., [410] 752-3810) will give you the chance to pop a few—if you have a wine allowance, of course. The staff will be happy to guide you through the 200-plus bottles on Corks' ever-changing list. Not that the food takes second place—the kitchen turns out new twists on fresh fish, superb cuts of beef, and a bread pudding that'll have you toasting (with a dessert wine, of course).

If all that popping gets on your nerves, cross the street for the sound of shells clattering at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood Co. (1065 S. Charles St. [Cross Street Market], [410] 685-2020). Surroundings are scarcely deluxe—all the charm of a wet basement, really—and you'll probably have to wait in line, but it's worth it for those freshly shucked bivalves, swimming in their own briny liquor. Squeeze a lemon, shake a few drops of hot sauce, and slurp 'em as the gods and goddesses of the Chesapeake commanded. Ignore the crowds and the spilled beer—just close your eyes and imagine the bay of bygone days, thick with bounty.

If your gastrointestinal tract can handle more than a few drops of hot sauce, stop off at Sisson's (36 E. Cross St., [410] 539-2093), Baltimore's oldest brewpub and practitioner par excellence of the laissez les bons temps roulez philosophy. From India pale ale to Belgian-style brews and fruit beers (an acquired taste), you'll find some form of liquid gold to quench the fire ensuing from a Cajun burger, blackened fish, or a heap of crawdads. If this grub doesn't drain your sinuses, nothing will.

End your tour of Federal Hill with a stop at One World Café (904 S. Charles St., [410] 234-0235), part grunge coffee bar, part vegan heaven. If you're hungry—seriously hungry—try the black-bean burrito, a mountain of a meal. Soups are inventive and fresh, and the kitchen knows its way around a block of tofu. Of course, you could idle away a midmorning or a midafternoon with a book, a cup of java or tea, and a sweet treat from the display case. (If Federal Hill is off, not on, your beaten path, consider the One World branch office, near the Hopkins Homewood campus.)

At Faidley's Seafood Market (400 W. Lexington St. [Lexington Market], [410] 727-4898), you're paying for atmosphere (bushel baskets filled with crabs and iced fish, fillet knives flashing, muscled men muscling open mollusks), not creature comfort (wet cement floors, cafeteria line, eating while standing). But there is no better intro to Charm City's seafood—the nationally renowned crab cakes, the oysters, the lake trout, the soft shells. A must for out-of-towners.

Sowebo has a reputation as one of Baltimore's artier neighborhoods, which makes it a fitting home for Sushi Café (1120 Hollins St., [410] 837-2345), whose raw-fish creations are a thing of beauty. Take the lovely 3-D Roll, a multicolored bouquet of tuna, salmon, and flounder wrapped in rice and covered in glimmering roe and sesame seeds, a feast for all the senses—taste most of all. For a more, um, direct artistic statement, we get the Ultraman Roll, a visionary pairing of fresh tuna with hot habañero pepper. A little sake on the side has a further salubrious effect on our creative juices.

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