Yes, the name is odd. But don't let that stop you from visiting Mr. Rain's Fun House, the new restaurant at the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill. It may sound like a wacky amusement-park ride, but it's really a comfortable space with intriguing food, a convivial atmosphere, and friendly service. The only surprises are fun ones.
Chef Bill Buszinski and his wife Maria, both formerly of the now-closed Sputnik Café in Crownsville, have brought their inimitable cuisine to this multistory haven for self-taught artists. The intermingling of comfort food with Asian, South American, African, and other cultures compliments the eclectic space nicely.
The third-floor restaurant is separated from the museum traffic, creating an interlude from the mainstream exhibits. But, inside, the spacious room has its own artifacts: a miniature, lighted, wooden carousel with intricately carved animals; dangling, flashing mirrors draped from the ceiling over the bar; and giant, sparkly animal-head sculptures on the walls.
Perhaps the most significant piece is a photo of a Dr. Strangelove-style rocket flanked by the Buszinskis and their general manager Perez Klebahn. But look closer. There's a bubble at the top of the photo with the face of a child. It's Jaden Rain, the Buszinskis' now six-year-old son—hence, part of the fanciful name of the restaurant. "Mr." was added to "Rain" to play off The Beatles' song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Klebahn says.
The "Fun House" portion of the name came from the owners' wish to have synergy with the museum and its collection of Americana. "It's a little quirky, but it's supposed to be as fun and offbeat as the museum," Klebahn says.
The style may be whimsical, but the food is serious business. Instead of rolls or bread, you start with puffy, pretzel rounds sprinkled with crumbles of sea salt, ready to be dipped into Dijon. Our affable server promised us more if we desired.
But we were saving room for our appetizers. The colorful Bibb and apple salad was prettily deconstructed on a rectangular plate—a fist of buttery lettuce with a splash of buttermilk dressing, sautéed apple slices, pecans, manchego cheese, and, because the chef was feeling generous, an unexpected dab of thick, sweet apple butter. Lumpia, the Filipino version of spring rolls, were fat with chunks of chicken and shrimp to be dipped into a golden sweet-and-sour sauce or a mild green herb sauce.
Panko oysters weren't on the menu the night we visited, but we had seen them on the restaurant's website and just had a hankering. When we inquired, our waiter put a plea into the chef, who graciously made us the dish. That's the kind of place this is. You'll also find spicy, finger-licking-good adobo ribs that were even better with a pickled golden beet/onion succotash.
In the evening, the restaurant has a romantic blush with dozens of votive candles lined along the main arched window. Each tabletop also has a flickering nub, set in a twist of copper tubing topped with a peacock feather. But the bare tables with a multi-golden hue are interesting in themselves. They are made from recycled sunflower stalks pressed into particleboard, our server said.
Throughout the evening, Maria Buszinski, the restaurant's ebullient business manager, and Klebahn, a trained sommelier who serves as the beverage director, mingled with diners, creating a festive atmosphere.
There was a bit of a wait between courses, but the results were worth it. (We could always have asked for more of those pretzel rounds.) The Tasmanian salmon was a thick, fork-tender fillet—flaky and pale pink with fresh sea flavor—served with string beans and chickpeas. The plump discs of sea scallops got a zingy edge from the ginger-carrot purée. They came with spring-thin asparagus (the dish is usually served with snow peas, but the kitchen made a substitution the night we were there), and a wonderfully nutty-tasting black rice.
Grilled pork tenderloin featured two hunks of succulent meat, accompanied by acorn squash, kale (dressed up with an exciting vinegary finish), and apple butter. One of our favorite entrees was the juicy East African spiced chicken, coated with a mélange of aromatic spices. The mango sauce and chutney played favorably with the tongue-tingling combo.
What we also like about the menu is the inclusion of vegetarian dishes: Portuguese-style tofu with preserved lemons and black rice, and black-eyed pea cakes with chow-chow relish. The chef also offers specials based on the seasons and what's available at the farmers' markets.
After the infusion of various flavors, you'll welcome the contrast of house-made desserts. The kitchen puts its own unexpected spin on baked Alaska—a small round of green cotton-candy ice cream slathered with meringue and topped, appropriately for this place, with a wisp of cotton candy. (There's a cotton-candy machine in the back, our server shared. Now why doesn't that surprise us?)
The other choices didn't disappoint us either: a flourless chocolate cake wedge with chocolate ganache, a round of moist pumpkin cheesecake, and a whopping two-layer carrot cake in a pool of lush pineapple sauce that sends the senses into tropical mode. Responsibly, our server made sure to tell us that the carrot cake had nuts in it.
The Buszinskis and their general manager are a good fit for the quirky museum that's been without a restaurant for too long. Small touches, like serving Cokes in chilled bottles and folding napkins for diners who leave the table, speak well for the attention to detail.
And you're sure to leave with a smile on your face if you check yourself out in the mirrors by the restrooms. You can be long and lean or short and squat. They're fun house mirrors, of course!