Do the ghosts of restaurants past haunt a new venue when it inhabits the space of a much-beloved favorite? Walking into the main dining area at Taste Mediterranean Grille in Towson, we couldn’t help but wistfully recall the many lovely Italian meals we’d had in this very room (ah, the heavenly osso buco, the fine risotto Milanese) when it was Café Troia, which occupied 28 Allegheny Ave. for 24 years.
But no need to get nostalgic; Café Troia hasn’t expired. It simply moved to larger digs across the street last February, so regulars seeking that famous osso buco know where to find it. Happily, that frees its successor to provide the neighborhood with something new. No ghosts here. Mediterranean Grille may be Italian, but its menu is sufficiently different from Troia’s to banish comparisons and establish loyal regulars of its own.
The dining room is freshly minted, with terra-cotta tile on the floors, warm brick-colored walls accented by bright paintings of flowers, celadon-green chairs, and soft pink runners on the tables. It’s not quite as cozy as the former occupant, but significantly more colorful. Native Italian chef/owner Luigi Palumbo has wisely crafted a menu whose emphasis is heavy on the seafood, some of it rare to nonexistent on Baltimore menus, like raw baccalá (salt cod) and bottarga di muggine, that inimitable Italian caviar redolent of the sea.
The restaurant’s name refers to a tasting menu of three prix-fixe dinners, each at a different price point. (It has no connection to the closed Taste restaurant near Belvedere Square, where Crush is now located.) But the list of offerings doesn’t end there. In addition to a bevy of salads, soups, and antipasti, including Mediterranean “sashimi,” the menu features an extensive selection of seafood preparations with pasta or risotto; six secondi di mare (grilled or steamed fish and shellfish); and seven meat preparations for landlubbers. Oh, and there are nightly specials, too.
We were duly excited to see, along with the baccalá and bottarga, two offerings on the antipasti menu that sparked our carnivorous cravings: steak tartare and carpaccio. But we curbed the barbarian in us—this is a seafood restaurant after all—and stuck to the specialty of the casa, the smallest of the tasting menus, which begins with an intriguing-sounding fish soufflé and crab-topped mozzarella. First off, though, we were treated to a plate of tiny bruschetti topped with sweet cherry tomatoes and good olive oil. Meanwhile, we took note that the breadbasket was filled with Italian bread that was actually fresh and warm and delicious.
Despite its name, the tasting menu’s portions were ample enough so that we could easily share “tastes.” The lush but delicate fish soufflé was dreamy. Served in a soufflé-like ramekin, the dish consisted of generous bites of mild and firm-fleshed sea bass enrobed in a white sauce with a whisper of herbs and green onion. We didn’t really care that there wasn’t a puffy top in sight; this concoction was fabulous.
The crab-topped mozzarella had us debating the pros and cons of cheese with fish. Traditionally, it’s a combination Italians adamantly oppose, but Chef Luigi must figure that Americans can’t resist one much-loved ingredient piled atop another. We weren’t so sure. The two alone are indeed delightful, but together their similarly mild flavors and rich textures cancel each other out. It doesn’t help that the duo is white on white. Some color—along with a little zing and crunch—would help.
Our third course, tender cuttlefish with crispy fried broccoli rabe, proved a much more felicitous pairing of contrasting colors, textures, and tastes, the pleasing bitterness of the rabe a perfect counterpoint to the creamy, mild fish. Meanwhile, one of our main courses arrived, a special of linguini and lobster served with the half lobster in its shell atop a mound of simply prepared pasta. Both were individually very good, but we agreed the dish would have been better if the lobster meat had been shelled and incorporated into the garlic-and-olive-oil sauce.
More satisfying was our next tasting, an entree-sized monkfish ragoût over paccheri, a tube-shaped pasta that resembles rigatoni without the ridges. The monkfish was meaty, the ragoût was a garlicky, tomato-laced broth, and the pasta was toothsome, a hearty peasant dish. After all these abundant “tastings,” the dessert course was a near impossibility, but it arrived nonetheless, a square of decent millefoglie (a pastry-cream combo) scattered with strawberries. We’ve never been a big fan of Italian desserts, and this one didn’t change our minds.
The mostly Italian wine list at Taste is wide-ranging and fairly comprehensive, from reasonably priced Sardinians to break-the-bank super Tuscans, and you can get a good Negroni or Bellini here, too. The service is friendly and almost too eager to please, but that’s understandable and certainly more welcome than its opposite. The restaurant is trying hard to make its name alongside a better-known local favorite. As far as we’re concerned, Taste Mediterranean is worthy of its predecessor and erstwhile competitor, and we’ll definitely be coming back on our own dime to sample more of that enticing menu.