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Michelle's adapts to its patrons

March 26, 2006|By PHILIP McGULLET

Surely, this cannot be. Someone stop me before I use the words "lively" and "nightlife" and "Hagerstown" all in the same sentence.

Oops, too late. There it is, right in print. If this distorts your universe to the point where you can't believe in anything anymore, blame Michelle's, occupant of the former Dutch Kitchen on East Washington Street. Michelle's combines a glass-slipper menu with tennis-shoe comfort to attract - here are those awkward words again - crowds to downtown Hagerstown on a Friday night.

There's plenty of blame at Michelle's for this happenstance: Good food, live music, a trendy bar and a happy, younger-skewing crowd.

With a couple of other high-end restaurants in the city already in place and a couple more on the drawing board, there will be no room for weak entrees in the field. Michelle's appears to have the formula to be a keeper, because it can be many things to many people.

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Sit in the bar area for an appetizer or two and good conversation. Move to the rear dining room to hear the guitarists play, or slide off to the side dining room to concentrate more closely on a worthy meal.

The menu reflects this flexibility. Options in each category are somewhat limited, but the categories themselves are varied depending on your mood and what you're willing to spend.

The atmosphere is cozy, but not cramped or cluttered. The dining rooms are something of a tabla rasa - hardwood floors; simple, white tablecloths; and black, wooden, but quite comfortable chairs. Again, it's adaptable; it will be whatever you want it to be. Central to the theme is that you enjoy spending time here. If the appetizer sits untouched on your table for 10 minutes because you're absorbed in conversation, that's OK.

Likewise, the service assumes you're not in this to rush through dinner. There might be some long gaps in which you do not see a server, but at the critical times they tend to magically appear. Or you will discover that your drink has been refilled while you weren't looking. They are like the setting - fun, friendly and comfortable.

If you let it, Michelle's can be a blow to the budget, with entrees running through the mid-to-high $20 range. But a couple of $8 appetizers will make a meal, and there are adequate low-cost selections, some from Michelle's impressive lunch menu.

We started our meal with the restaurant's tasty crab dip, a sumptuous blend of backfin crabmeat and cheese, served with pita wedges for dipping. Michelle's signature French onion soup also was a hit with one of my dining companions. The hefty crock came out piping hot with a healthy topping of mozzarella cheese.

The vegetable quesadilla, on the other hand, got mixed reviews from the table. While most of us applauded the flavor of the sauted veggies tucked within two grilled tortilla shells, we were a bit disappointed that there wasn't more cheese and that the quesadilla was a bit on the soggy side.

The Irish nachos, on the other hand, are a clever idea that doesn't quite work. Instead of tortilla chips, these nachos are based on fries, with cheese, bacon and red onion toppings.

Michelle's would do well to replace the Irish nachos with another variation of the dish that appears on the menu from time to time using chips as a base with the aforementioned accessories. There are no two ways about it: Bacon on a more traditional nacho platform is a slam dunk.

The specials on this particular Friday were truly special, both in taste and value. A juicy tuna steak was coated in sesame seeds and topped with a shaggy toupee of bright green and tasty seaweed. The dish, served over wild rice, hit on all cylinders - flavor, color and texture. It had a lot going on and all came together in perfect harmony.

Also on special was an ample T-bone for $18, which we passed over for the more expensive and creative menu staple, a $24 New York strip in a brandy demi-glac.

The steak, ordered medium rare, came rare, but I am flexible on these matters, overcooking being the far greater sin. (If this trip was indicative, Michelle's uses less flame all around, so if you have a more traditional idea about medium or medium-rare on steak or fish, take care to explain it beforehand.)

The steak was good and the sauce was a dream, the somewhat sweet and luxurious demi-glac accented grandly by piquant little explosions here and there of black peppercorns.

The desserts, made elsewhere, are adequate if not exceptional. A tiramisu was a bit tame and didn't employ the traditional ladyfingers, but did leave a very pleasing aftertaste after a few of the more delicate flavors battled their way to the top of the sponge cake.

But there is no going wrong with a "beyond chocolate" creation that stretches the venerable bean to both its light and dark and dense and creamy extremes. Besides, you will want dessert to stretch out a fine and fun evening just a little bit longer.

Philip McGullet is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.




Michelle's

10 E. Washington St.

301-733-6608

Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Live music on Friday nights.

Overall: 4 stars (out of five)

Food: 4 stars

Value: 3 stars

Service: 4 stars

Atmosphere: 4 stars

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