Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dining Out: Three Mini-Restaurant Reviews

As I mentioned yesterday, I didn't do a lot of cooking over the weekend, not after the oyster stew debacle. Instead, I got to scope out the inside of several restaurants. Unfortunately, I also didn't do a lot of note- or picture-taking, so I don't have tons and tons to report back on. But I can do my best.

DINING EXPERIENCE #1: Saturday night dinner at the Owl Bar

Saturday night, Cooper and I had plans to go downtown to celebrate my friend Chris's birthday. We were due to meet everyone at 8:30, and around 7 pm we realized that we should probably eat something before going to a bar. We weren't very hungry, having just devoured a goat cheese and leek quiche from Whole Foods, but we've made the not-eating mistake before. It's never pretty.

So, without any sort of reservations, and not particularly hungry, we dove into our restaurant-gift-certificate-drawer, which is fairly full these days, thanks to our recent birthdays and Christmas. We happened upon a gift card for the Owl Bar, the old school saloonish restaurant and bar in the lobby of the Belvedere, a residential hotel and very cool Baltimore landmark. The Owl Bar is cool, but pretty laid back, and has lots of light food. Plus, we thought we'd probably be able to get a table.

We were right. We got the very last table in the place - a cocktail table, served by the bartender. We didn't have tons of time to linger, but ordered an appetizer and some sandwiches. Our food took a little longer than it probably should have, but the big room is so full of things to look at that we didn't mind. The super-high ceilings are ornate, and framed by large stained glass windows depicting pictures of and sayings about owls. Very cool stuff. The crowd is aesthetically pleasing, too. No one's super dressed up - it's not that kind of place - but it does draw a mildly arty, hip-ish group. I used to go on dates there, back in my ad agency days. It's like that.

Anyway. The food. It was pretty good, if slightly unremarkable. My toasted ham and brie sandwich was fine, though it was lacking the advertised peach ketchup (which I was totally looking forward to.) And Cooper liked his big ball of heart attack Monte Cristo, though since he'd never had one before, he couldn't compare it to much.

Our appetizer was the most interesting part of the meal: fried artichokes and pickles with grated parmesan and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. I loved it; Cooper was more ambivalent. The artichokes and pickles were lightly breaded, and not at all greasy. The saltiness of fried pieces brought out the sweetness of the balsamic, and actually made the crunchy parmesan taste sweet, too. And the pickles were salty. But I like that. It wasn't a complicated appetizer, but just different enough to be interesting.

Verdict: pretty good. We'll go back, though it wasn't outstanding. Mildly fancy bar food. Which is fine.

DINING EXPERIENCE #2: Sunday brunch at Crepe du Jour

The next morning, I hauled myself out of bed to meet my high school girl friends for brunch. We were celebrating an engagement, as we do, and needed to meet somewhere we could hang out for a little while and that was not too far from Bel Air or Annapolis and that offers decent healthy and vegetarian options. Having been to Crepe du Jour a few times with my mom and grandmother and sister, and knowing how much they love it, I suggested it. It's tucked into Mount Washington, one of my favorite Baltimore neighborhoods, and is fairly convenient (or equally inconvenient) to most places.

None of the other girls had been there before, so I was nervous, but we weren't disappointed. The service is always a little questionable - the waitresses are totally overworked, so they're a bit forgetful - but the place is so charming and the food is reliably good enough that it really doesn't matter.

I'd made a reservation, and when I walked into the tiny space, I was very glad I did. Every table was filled, except the one in the window that was saved for us. The space is very country French - tables are tight, walls are decorated, the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Three of us ordered the same thing (as we are wont to do): the crepe Napoleon, filled with brie, mushrooms and artichokes. Our fourth ordered a vegetable and mozzarella panini, requesting that it not be too greasy (she'd had a recent bad experience).

And everyone was happy. The crepes are consistently good, and they're served with a small green salad with cheese - it's all very francais. The panini was very, very lightly grilled - perfectly - and was full of fresh vegetables and fresh, fresh mozzarella.

We sat and talked for two hours - and never once felt at all rushed, even though the place was jammed. It's that friendly. When the weather's nice, it's also fun to sit on the restaurant's big back deck (which has heaters)...again, very francais.

Verdict: We'll be back. Soon. Definitely. I'm hoping to go back very soon for a half-price wine Wednesday.

DINING EXPERIENCE #3: Today's lunch at Olive and Sesame

I've had a big day today, too, with a business meeting in the morning and lunch with an old friend at noon. My friend, D, was one of my partners in crime on my crazy business school trip to Europe (and was actually the one who ordered the warm sticky toffee pud). But I digress. He's moving to Charlotte for a new job, so we had one last lunch to catch up and say goodbye.

He picked the place - he's moving, so he's trying to visit all his favorite places to eat before he hits the road. Olive and Sesame is about five minutes from my house, so it was great for me.

I've only been to the restaurant twice before, and once was for lunch with the same friend last summer. Towson is absolutely overrun with Asian restaurants, and once you get in a groove going to one of them, it's hard to get out. I like Olive and Sesame, though, for it's clean decor (it's been open for a few years, but still has that new restaurant sheen), mix of Chinese and Japanese food, and for the fact that the Chinese food on the menu is not cooked with quite as much grease as it could be. The sauces are strong but the oil level is low. That's nice.

Plus, the quality of the ingredients is better than at other local places. I ordered the lunch portion of sesame chicken, which came with a fresh green salad with ginger (YUM) dressing. The salad was comprised of actual mixed greens - the dark kind - as opposed to the few browning scraps of iceberg that so often has to pass for salad in Asian restaurants. The chicken was served with rice and steamed vegetables that were crispy enough to still have some integrity, and tons of sweet, rich sesame sauce. And the chicken itself was recognizable meat. It was lightly fried, but was still, quite obviously, chicken. Unfortunately, for as much Asian cuisine as is available around here, this is quite revolutionary.

The restaurant's never particularly crowded, though, which is nice when you're sitting talking and getting great service, but might not be so nice for the owners. I attribute this to the glut of Asian places in the area, and to the particular location. Parking's easy and it's a nice spot, but the place also lives in one of those mysterious restaurant graveyard locations: they come and go, and though the location seems perfect, nothing stays open.

Olive and Sesame has made it for a few years, though, and hopefully it'll stick around for a while longer.

Verdict: I just have to remember to go back. Because I want to. Really.

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