Liv2Eat skips the shortcuts

Liv2Eat (1444 Light St., [443]449-7129, opened last November without much buzzy fanfare, which is a bit surprising considering its Twitter-friendly moniker. It may be that the restaurant's condensed name actually does the place a disservice. If the appellation implies shortcuts, or even sounds like a chain, those impressions couldn't be further from the truth.

In fact, Liv2Eat lives up to our fond memories of the restaurant Bicycle, whose former space it occupies. Bicycle was in some ways ahead of its time, parked on a stretch of Light Street somewhat beyond the familiar boundaries of South Baltimore. Bicycles weren't yet a symbol of urban virtue, and local food meant sauerkraut and Berger cookies.

Liv2Eat embraces its predecessor's legacy with its slow-food ethos and use of high-quality ingredients in an easygoing setting. And like Bicycle, the place is owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team-Cecilia Benalcazar and Kevin Perry (who recently worked at Hell Point Seafood in Annapolis).

And while nobody said Federal Hill needed a new restaurant, Liv2Eat definitely feels like a breath of fresh air among the neighborhood's collection of atmospheric gastropubs. The place is simple, with hardwood floors and pale walls, aluminum chairs, and a cheerful, yet intimate bar at one end of the main room.

The food is as bright and fresh as the interior. On a recent night, peas were on offer: the pea puree presenting our seared scallops could have been ordered up by the folks who deemed emerald green the color of the year. The scallops, somewhat salty and pleasantly seared on all sides, also came with fresh peas, fava beans, tender slivers of baby carrots and asparagus spears-vegetables that hearkened a new season.

This particular selection of vegetables must have been abundant wherever the chef did his produce shopping. The mix also showed up with the chicken paillard (with its additional side of stone-ground grits) and the lamb. The spring lamb ($28) seemed to beckon those of us weary of winter, and the dish didn't disappoint. The meat was rosy red and juicy, the edges grilled to a nice char. A generous heap of slices towered atop silky potato puree, surrounded by a rich wine-based reduction.

The wine and beer list is brief but tasteful, with small-batch selections in bottles on the beer side-along with drafts from such local breweries as Burley Oak and Union. The short wine list seems to have something for everyone-a crisp biodynamic torrontés, chardonnays from France or California, and mostly European reds from Bordeaux, Tuscany and Rioja. There's one local wine on the list, Boordy shiraz, but it's somewhat overshadowed by its more worldly companions.

As a diner of a certain age, consistently reaching for her reading glasses (and grateful when a maitre d' or server can provide a loaner pair), I was amused by the large print on the food side of the menu, its 48-point type easily legible. (The descriptions of wine and beer use the standard point size. I guess if you want to drink, you must have clear vision.)

The oversize type keeps the menu well edited, with space for only three categories, a handful of choices in each, plus sides and desserts. We ordered the curious-sounding "stuffies" ($10) from the "Hot Stuff" section, and were treated to a take on clams casino. Huge quahog clam shells were filled with chopped clam meat, chorizo sausage, breadcrumbs, and herbs, and baked-a nice thought, but the salty, spicy chorizo overwhelmed the plump clams.

The highlight of the meal was the pea salad ($12), tender, chopped pods tossed with tarragon and fresh peas, dressed with a simple white balsamic vinegar and pecorino cheese. The bright green pea shoots combined with the sweet tarragon tasted like spring, while bits of crisp pancetta and roasted hazelnuts added a salty crunch to the salad.

The menu changes seasonally, and I'd guess more often than that, unless peas are a particular favorite of the chef. It's the kind of simple concept-some go-to appetizers like stuffies, risotto fritters, Prince Edward Island mussels, and a brief selection of entrees-that ensures a small, hands-on operation doesn't get too overwhelming.

Oh, and speaking of hands-on: We asked for the "cookies and milk" ($5) for dessert and were told the kitchen was out of the ice-cold 2-percent that usually balances out the sweet treat. We went ahead with the order, and, moments later, we began to detect a tantalizing burnt-sugar smell wafting through the dining room. Soon, a plate of four warm cookies, pleasantly dark around the edges, the chocolate bits melting inside, arrived at the table.

The restaurant's name may read like a shortcut, but the work in the kitchen is anything but.

Liv2Eat is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

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