It sounds elementary, but a restaurant's success is all about the ownership. A savvy, experienced owner can ride the wave of inevitable mishaps and downturns like a champ, just as a bad one can blow every advantage of personnel and location he or she is handed. I once watched a local hot-shot restaurateur schmooze the night away at his own bar while all around him his staff and kitchen were falling apart. Needless to say, he's out of the business now. A crack restaurateur can schmooze with the customers, but behind the schmooze he's a stealth machine, a human surveillance system with an uncanny feel for every customer need, every service glitch, every potential kitchen crisis. Call it instinct or hard work or equal parts of both, but the business can't fly without it.
This is why I have a lot of hope for three... (yep, the ellipses are part of the name, but for our editorial purposes, we're dropping them), the eagerly anticipated Patterson Park venue that opened early last summer. The neighborhood is desperately in need of serious hangouts for its rapidly gentrifying populace, so when the former occupant of the building, Parkside, closed within a year of opening, it was cause for consternation and dismay, especially given its prime corner spot on the park. Bad ownership? I don't know the details, but I do remember that when I reviewed it, there wasn't much of a sense that it belonged to anyone in particular.
With three, that's all changed now. The guys in charge are veterans from the popular One-Eyed Mike's, and it shows. On my first visit, co-owner Richard Karoll was very much in evidence on the floor—bubbling with enthusiasm and eager to share his favorites on the menu as he kept an eye on the proceedings. On a second visit, partner Michael Harmel was bartending, keeping tabs on reservations, directing the staff, all with friendly aplomb. It's good to know that these guys are so clearly psyched about their place; their energetic presence immediately gives three a strong sense of identity. But it seems Karoll and Harmel also have good survival instincts: Shortly after opening, their third partner (hence "three"), chef Jack Starr, suddenly quit. Without flinching, Karoll and Harmel closed, hired Pazo's Peter Livolsi, and reopened in the blink of an eye. A duo who can so easily handle that potential disaster just might make it.
I never got the chance to try Starr's food, but I've long been a fan of Livolsi, who totally revamped the menu on arrival. It's Pazo-like in concept but not in the particulars, save for a fine tuna involtini prepared Sicilian-style with raisins, capers and pinenuts that Livolsi brought from his former kitchen. Most of the menu is composed of similar small plates, save for a couple of entrees like duck confit with sweet potato and grilled veal chop, both peculiarly fall-like and heavy for the late summer evenings we visited. So we stuck to the tapas, which are filled with sharp and tangy flavors of the Mediterranean and range from simple little items like fresh figs and Roquefort atop arugula and chives to more substantial dishes like fried eggplant puttanesca, a lush and lovely layering of thin-sliced eggplant, melted pecorino and buffalo mozzarella bathed in rustic, spicy tomato sauce. There's enough winsome, fun stuff to keep you engaged—little chickpea cakes with orange blossom-scented aioli—but nothing so distracting it'll challenge your focus on the company you came with.
Indeed, gathering a few friends and ranging around a menu of various tastes and tidbits seems exactly the right way to go for this neighborhood. You can drop in at three and sit at the bar, at a table up front where huge windows give you a view of the park, or in the long narrow dining room on the other side of an exposed brick wall, its punched out squares affording a view of the bar. It's noisy and convivial when there's a crowd—and at peak hours there will be—but on both nights we were there, Karoll and Harmel kept everything flowing smoothly, and the waitstaff was as friendly and eager to please as they were. Best of all, three's kitchen stays open late, reason enough to applaud in a town like Baltimore.
After sampling much of the menu, I'd suggest to newcomers that they immediately turn to the back of the bamboo-bound, handmade menu, where the daily seafood specialties are laid out. They're the best of the bunch—glisteningly fresh and tender grilled calamari veiled in tomato and lemon verbena sauce; big, crisp-edged scallops the texture of soft taffy and sided with yellow pepper puree; savory shrimp cakes and corn in a pool of delicate mustard cream; fat garlic shrimp fired with hot chiles. Among the salads, a plate of baby arugula made a surprisingly successful pairing with a pile of crunchy fingerling potatoes in an apple cider vinaigrette. More arugula graced a really good sandwich of Serrano ham, tomato, and mozzarella. Misses? A roasted beet salad with not-peak-flavor beets, a perfectly nice flank steak in a too-sweet Asian marinade, a nondescript vegetarian bean soup. In other words, lapses that wouldn't be substantial enough to keep us away, although the menu could use a few more dishes for diners who don't eat fish or meat.
We must confess that we skipped dessert on both visits. Nothing is made in-house, but consists of a selection from the wildly popular Dangerously Delicious Pies. For pie fans, it's gotta be heaven, but after downing a dozen or so tapas we just couldn't see ourselves polishing off a big hunk of pie. But that's OK. I'm sure if Karoll and Harmel find their customers want something more in the way of sweets, they'll figure it out. Together with Livolsi, they seem like the type of guys who'll be able to make the most of a good thing.