We watched Miss Irene's transformation from tacky bar to upscale bistro for months, wondering if the project would ever be finished. Finally, it was. And, now, we were going to be able to see the end result without peering through dusty windows. (We used to scuttle past the Fells Point landmark watering hole several times a week.) Okay, so we're curious.
But we had no idea that possibly one of Baltimore's most romantic restaurants was in the making with arguably the best vista of the harbor in Fells Point. The upstairs dining room—once the apartment of the eponymous Miss Irene herself—is a startling discovery even after being impressed with the downstairs bar, which glistens with new dark wood, a polished bar, and sunny-yellow walls. On the upper level, in the charcoal shadows of evening, the candlelight at the tables and soft chandelier lighting create a gauzy glow on the white-clothed tables and wide-plank floors. Outside, the water gleams with dappled light and the Tide Point sign glimmers as a beacon. This is a place where lovers will meet and couples will date. Oh, they'll definitely share a meal, too.
The menu is French-inspired, although there are also inflections of Italian, Mediterranean, and new American fare. The appetizers alone will fill you up. We noisily shared a dozen oysters mignonette, slurping the bivalves already laced with the vinegary mignonette sauce. But we found the oysters cool, not bracingly cold the way we like. We also were perplexed by our server—a pleasant, chatty guy who didn't seem to know much about the restaurant's food. Here's an exchange about the oysters after they'd been cleared from the table:
"Where are they from," we asked. "Were they salty?" he questioned. We nodded yes. "Virginia," he answered, confidently. Suddenly, he asked us if they were large. Affirmative. "Then they're from the Chesapeake." Huh? We never did find out the origins.
But by then we had distracted ourselves with the wonderful cheese board, that night featuring slices of Kerrygold Irish cheddar, brie, and Humboldt Fog goat cheese with toasted baguette slices, a thimble of sweet honey, pureed Mission figs, and tart caperberries the size of green olives. The pâté du jour—campagne (country)—was a rich, rustic slab of ground pork with toast rounds that reminded us of lazy afternoons snacking at outdoor Parisian cafes. We also liked the chef's take on calamari, which gets such a variety of treatments at restaurants. Here, the tender discs of squid shared space with peppery arugula, tiny potato puffs, capers (the little ones), and a fragrant white-truffle vinaigrette in a salad presentation.
Entree portions are old-school large with a noticeable gap—no veggies anywhere on the four plates we ordered. So if you need your greens, order a salad. The saffron risotto with hunks of salmon, mussels, and shrimp was appropriately creamy but we couldn't find any evidence of saffron. The oven-roasted salmon with house-made fettuccine, doused in a white sauce (described as spicy apple cream on the menu), was flaky and flavorful with baked, sliced apples adding a welcome complement. We couldn't discern any apple or zestiness in the sauce, though. Another sauce also confused us. The pan-seared rockfish—snowy white and lush—was a standout with thin, al dente spaghetti, but the "livornaise" was a white sauce. Typically, "livornese" is tomato-based. Maybe the spelling makes a difference? Our waiter didn't know the answer.
But our biggest disappointment was the grilled New York strip steak. For any price, it wouldn't have been worth it for the amount of gristle in the meat. But at $32, it was an outrage. Even the Stilton butter shimmering on top couldn't save it, and we were given no steak knife to hack our way through. And, then, the frites! These too-thin excuses for fries reminded me of the spud sticks you find in a certain blue can at the grocery store.
Desserts were simple but satisfying. An apple galette was chock-full of tender fruit in a flaky pastry and served with vanilla ice cream and squiggles of whipped cream. The mango sorbet was a breath of summer. It was like eating a deliciously dripping-down-your-chin ripe mango. And a Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée was properly soothing, its custard interior nicely sealed with a caramel coating—perfect for gently tapping open with a spoon.
We also ducked into Miss Irene's soon after our dinner visit for lunch, snaring a high-top table in the downstairs bar. This time, the bartender/waiter did an efficient job of double duty and was helpful and knowledgeable about offerings on the menu. Our go-back-for favorite is the croque madame, a thick, toasted, ham-and-grilled-Gruyère-cheese sandwich with a fried-egg on top that joyfully spilled its gooey, golden contents on first bite. We think it's great you can get grilled asparagus as a side with it, too.
Whether you're at the bar or upstairs dining room, Miss Irene's has a simple but well-represented wine list divided into red and white selections, including bottles from Europe, Australia, South America, and California in price points from $20 to $60. It breaks out several house wines for $7.50 a glass. There are also specialty drinks and a lunchtime deal featuring three martinis for $10. Now, that's retro.
This beautiful restaurant with a stunning view has so much potential and the kitchen delivered so many successes throughout our meal that we believe the quirks and kinks will eventually be worked out. After all, Fells Point needs a classy bistro amid all the wharf bars and burger joints.