Once upon a time, there was a restaurant in Riverside called The Bicycle, and all the town rejoiced at its success under chef/owner Barry Rumsey. From 1999 until 2006, Rumsey toiled with his wife Deborah Mazzoleni, turning out exquisite contemporary American cuisine that wowed Baltimore and beyond. But, alas, the couple tired of their hectic city life and turned over the Zagat-rated restaurant to chef Nicholas Batey before heading west to Oregon. Diners were fearful. But not for long. Batey and his wife, Saundra, continued the restaurant’s winning formula—until 2009, that is. Then, The Bicycle abruptly closed. The spiraling economy was mentioned as a cause.
No, that wasn’t the end, children. Local chef George Dailey stepped up in 2010, taking over the space and renaming it Centro Tapas Bar. Even though his Spanish and South American small plates were well received, he didn’t last long. The restaurant shuttered in 2011.
Now, the next chapter begins. New proprietors Kevin Perry and Cecilia Benalcazar are confident they can make the place work. The husband-and-wife team opened Liv2Eat in November—they also live upstairs—with a smart New American menu that focuses on local products and seasonal ingredients.
When asked about the restaurant’s interesting (read: odd) name, Benalcazar acknowledges that it was a challenge, almost as difficult as coming up with a name for their 15-month-old son Jack. But the couple was inspired by a comment by New York City restaurateur and Mario Batali partner Joe Bastianich: “People eat to live. We live to eat.”
The Federal Hill restaurant was soon christened Liv2Eat. Perry, who is the chef, also made cosmetic changes, painting the walls a warm beige hue, crafting a bar with pebble accents, adding plantation shutters, and choosing thick, black tables for the dining room. “He’s a visionary,” Benalcazar says of her husband.
The menu, too, is a compilation of offerings reflecting Perry’s inventiveness. It includes some dishes he prepared at other restaurants, like Hell Point Seafood in Annapolis and Equinox in D.C. One of those—the “stuffies”—showcases plump quahog clams on the half shell topped with bits of zesty chorizo and drizzled with herb butter. Another, risotto fritters, takes crispy rice balls and pairs them with chive crème fraîche and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both were delicious starters.
The “hot stuff” appetizer/small-plate category also includes squash soup, mussels, sea scallops, and baby-back ribs. Four interesting salads are also available, pairing greens with ingredients like duck and toasted hazelnuts, Surryano ham and Granny Smith apples, and poached Bartlett pears and blue cheese.
The beet salad we ordered featured ruby cubes of the root vegetable intermingled with a plateful of arugula, toasted walnuts, and goat cheese, all glistening with Dijon vinaigrette. It could stand in for a main dish.
The six larger “plates” reflect the chef’s penchant for layering flavors and surprising our taste buds. The chitarra noodles are house-made and mixed with guanciale, an Italian bacon, and porcini mushrooms. A charbroiled Atlantic salmon comes with a leek caponata and green olives.
We settled on the Amish chicken—a pan-fried breast—that was a perfect palette for a wild-rice pilaf studded with diced squash, figs, and hazelnuts and a mound of puffy celery-root purée. (The dish’s ingredients change seasonally.) The steak frites proved to be a misnomer, but we didn’t mind. The tender grilled flat-iron shouldered a delicate potato purée instead of the usual salty fries.
We also savored a hefty triangle of grilled swordfish that worked well with a Tuscan bean stew and braised spinach. We added a side of Brussels sprouts to share at the table, which was a very good move. The bright-green spheres were addictive with bacon, shallots, and melted butter.
Only one dessert was available the night we visited. We would have to wait another day to try the baked apple with caramel and Taharka Bros. vanilla ice cream, and the chocolate raspberry cake. But we didn’t cry over spilled milk, so to speak. In fact, we drank milk—an icy, bracing, and refreshing glass with warm house-made chocolate-chip cookies sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. It was like being in the fourth grade all over again.
Perry and Benalcazar, who works in the front of the house, will also seat diners in the back, outdoor courtyard when the weather warms. They are hoping to attract customers from all over, but one of their goals is “to be that neighborhood go-to spot,” Benalcazar says.
With the varied, affordable menu, charming setting, and surge of new energy, the couple is certainly poised for a fairy-tale ending at this seemingly jinxed locale.