To enter the dining room, we have to pass by the man with the guitar. He leans over the microphone and says a few words in an Irish brogue, then breaks into a Joan Armatrading number. Scattered clumps of fiftysomethings, many wearing green plastic hats, smile and raise their wine glasses.
It's St. Patrick's Day at the Baltic Bar & Restaurant.
My dining companions get in the spirit by ordering two of the daily specials, Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage. I forgo my customary glass of wine for a pint of Sierra Nevada. As the Irish man starts singing Neil Young, the fourtop across the room gets into the groove, swaying in time with his strumming.
Live music is a major draw at the saloon-cum-restaurant in downtown Point Richmond. Folk, rock, reggae, and blues musicians play in the doorway between the dining room and the bar four nights a week (visit www.thebaltic.org for the schedule of performers).
"Hip and Historic" reads the placard outside the Baltic. Founded in 1904, the Baltic was Point Richmond's first tavern (and in the early years, a brothel as well). It passed through many owners, eventually undergoing a complete restoration. Current owner Chuck Wise continued the improvements, including rebuilding a large deck out back for sunny-day imbibing. Point Richmond's quaintness factor continues to rise every year, and the restaurant's High Western brick facade and restored interior epitomize the charm of this well-preserved neighborhood.
Hip and historic meet, mingle, and exchange phone numbers over beers around the funky wooden bar that looks like it has propped up quite a few drunks over the years. On the wall, photos of San Francisco circa 1900 alternate with colorful oil paintings of Frank Sinatra and Jerry Garcia. Sitting at the dim end of the wood-paneled dining room, it's easy to picture the tables filled with bands of bachelor refinery workers, ancestors perhaps of the singing drinkers in the next room.
Our food takes a while to reach us. An admirable rendition of corned beef, thick pink slabs of meat waiting to be pulled apart with a fork, arrives with a wedge of slippery, soft cabbage, perfectly cooked carrots, and boiled potatoes. Everything tastes better when rubbed in the biting horseradish cream sauce on the bottom of the plate. The beef in the Irish stew is just as tender. It's mixed with hefty helpings of stewed turnips, carrots, potatoes, and chard. But the thin slick of broth on the bottom of the bowl, slightly too acidic from tomatoes, doesn't have the volume or the character to give the stew much depth of flavor.
While the burger plate is arranged attractively, melted slices of Jack and cheddar can't hide the fact that the sirloin patty they cover -- a pinkless "medium" -- needs fat and salt. Sirloin meat is lean enough for steak tartare, but cheaper chuck works best for burgers because of its high fat content. As the burger cooks, the fat melts and keeps it moist. And as one of my old chefs used to say while dropping half a pound of butter into a stockpot of chowder, "The fat's where the flavor is." We poke at a pile of fries, carved from fresh, whole potatoes that could have used a quick double-dip in the fryer to crisp them up.
Score: one run, one hit, one strike, consistent with my first visit several days earlier. On that trip two friends and I ordered entrées from the pricier end of the menu. The Baltic bills itself "an American bistro." Its menu matches the decor -- a somewhat eccentric mixture of the pub and the fruity, all unquestionably Californian. There's some good, honest food coming out of the kitchen. But it's not in the majority.
Wednesdays are advertised as Dungeness crab nights, but none were on offer the Wednesday I visited. So my friends and I settled for an order of crab cakes. It's rare to find a restaurant on the West Coast that doesn't pack the crab tightly, resulting in a dense, chewy mass. The Baltic's light, pan-fried crab cakes were excellent -- mildly sweet and crabby, as flaky as a Southern biscuit. They were served with a tart cabbage-and-bell-pepper slaw and a dollop of chile-tinted mayonnaise.
Dressings blemished two perfectly respectable salads. An extra ladle of sugary balsamic vinaigrette, coupled with well-coated caramelized walnuts, turned our baby spinach salad into dessert, not appetizer. The blue cheese and bacon scattered on top got lost and therewith much of the charm. A mixed green salad with sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and pine nuts had everything going for it until it was tossed with a sweet, gritty kiwi vinaigrette, as out of place as a tracksuit at the opera.
I had just returned from Chicago, city of blustery winds and enormous portions and was looking forward to a return to human-sized plates of food. When I spotted an incoming bowl with three inches of risotto rising above the rim, I wanted to duck and run. I'm beginning to believe in the inverse relation between portion size and quality. It's not just a matter of overcompensation but also one of palate fatigue. You eat a big entrée until you get tired of it or until the thought of putting another bite in your mouth makes you ill.
The rule held true for our entrées. The mountain of "risotto," chock full of monkfish, oysters, mussels, sea scallops, and fried clams, certainly provided bulk. Unfortunately, the chef was a little unclear on the concept of risotto. The seafood was bound together with flavorless rice that was dry enough to be fluffy instead of creamy and saturated with rich broth. Another example of a good idea executed poorly was the "Bloody Mary roasted salmon," an overcooked (but large) fillet smeared with a thick layer of prepared horseradish (I scraped off most to make it edible) and sauced in a lukewarm, herb-flecked marinara. Crispy potato pancakes disappeared from the plate; a pile of undercooked green chard stayed.
One friend ordered a dish worth doggie-bagging. Her peppered New York strip steak was crusty on the outside, inside as rare as rare should be. Jack Daniels cream sauce, tasting like a meaty shot of Bailey's, came in a silver sauce boat. All of us neglected our own entrées to dip pieces of bread into the unctuous sauce.
Service was leisurely and agreeable. Drinks and food came to us at a slow but not lackadaisical pace. It gave us time to digest before the dessert course, which on the whole was the strongest, most consistent part of both meals. Thick crusts of caramelized sugar crowned vanilla and chocolate crème brûlées whose seductive richness coated the tongue. In the strawberry napoleon, long slabs of pastry poked out of a loosely layered mix of bright lemon curd and ripe strawberries, their tartness checked by fluffy whipped cream.
The desserts worked because they didn't aim for culinary heights they couldn't reach. The Baltic has an attractive historic building, a packed calendar of live music, and a friendly, funky neighborhood clientele. All it needs is a menu that matches the space, not the owners' gastronomic aspirations.
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