If you belong to the generation that read Catcher in the Rye
in college, you may need a little explanation about the
name of this place, which opened in a former townhouse in
Old Town a few months ago. No, Bilbo Baggins was not a
senator from Mississippi. He's one of author J.R. Tolkien's diminutive hobbits--friendly, cheerful, hard-working, hospitable. Happily, so are the members of the restaurant staff,except that they're full size and look remarkably like graduate students. (Part of the staff's earnestness no doubt stems from a form of creative capitalism through which each of them owns a piece of action.)
The small dining rooms, one upstairs and one down, have a pleasant, chunky, hobbit-like roughness, with wood floors and tables, old brick and varnished lathing strips in the walls, and, in the center of the downstairs room, a brick oven for baking bread. Downstairs are a series of high French doors, open to the street when the weather's right. A streetside table can offer the pleasures of a sidewalk caf,e minus the flies and sparrows, and on a cool evening when there's a soft river breeze, the sitting is a delight.
But some of the chairs in the downstairs room are neither delightful nor soft. They're wooden torture devices used for concerts in high school gyms and suitable only for long-suffering parents or hobbits. If the folding chairs are all that's left downstairs, you can head for the lovely upstairs dining room, small, intimate and furnished with seven booths that are actually former church pews. (That the pews seemed sybaritic says something about those folding chairs.)
It's fitting that the bread oven sits prominently in the restaurant, for Bilbo Baggins' bread is, in a word, wonderful --rough, round, dense, thick-crusted, hearth-baked and made with whole wheat, flaked rye and raisins. In fact, one of the best reasons for coming here is to be able to buy a few loaves and squirrel them away in your freezer.
The left side of the menu lists items always available: appetizers, salads, quiches, a few sandwiches, several pastas, desserts. On the right is a clipped-on list of 10 or so entrees that change daily. There's a separate menu for Sunday brunch, and there are special picnic lunches to take out. The wine list is small, concentrating on moderately priced California selections.
How does it all come off? There's talent in the kitchen at Bilbo Baggins, no doubt of that, and imagination and a special flair for vegetables. But, at least on the entree side of the menu, there's an inconsistency that can make ordering dinner something like shooting dice. The daily changes worsen the frustration: If you win the roll and find an excellent dish, there's a good chance it won't be there when you come back.
On the steady, consistent left side of the menu, the skill with vegetables blossoms in the tempura vegetables, bright, crisp, quickly fried. Salads are fine, with fresh greens and mustardy vinaigrette dressings. The quiche, made in-house and different each day, is outstanding, with flaky crusts, airy custard and generous fillings.
Pastas tend to be smallish and low priced, so they're food for lunch or a shared appetizer at dinner. Don't expect Italian zest--there's a very light hand on the garlic press and the herb jars, and the cooking is several shades beyond chewy. But with the vegetables and sauces lively and the cheeses feathery, there's a feeling of delicacy to these dishes rather than tameness.
It's a roller coaster ride among the entrees, although the vegetable accompaniments are consistently excellent. Here's an annotated catalog from several visits. 1) Fine soft-shell crabs, saut,eed in butter, white as snow within, and bursting with juice. 2) Mushy, textureless, overcooked sole. (According to one of the staff, the sole had been frozen. Why, in a place like this?) 3) Exemplary beef stroganoff, with the tenderest of meat in an imaginative sauce that included diced sweet red pepper, sherry and what tasted like tiny slivers of sweet pickle. 4) Steak Basquaise and steak au poivre vert, dry and chewy. 5) A fine veal chasseur, with quality medallions in a nicely balanced cream-sherry-mushroom sauce. 6) Beef Wellington spoiled by little globs of uncooked dough sticking to the inside of the pastry shell. 7) A faultless chicken cordon bleu, with moist, fork-tender strips of breast, a very light batter coating and preparation that allowed chicken, ham and melted cheese each a life of its own.
Why such inconsistency? For one thing, this is a relatively new restaurant, and kitchens need shakedown cruises as much as ships. For another thing, taking on a new list of entrees each night (even with some overlaps) is a tough job.
It's back to an even keel with brunch, a good time to visit Bilbo Baggins for big, fluffy, generously stuffed omelets; fresh fruit salads; elaborate, impressively sauced poached egg dishes; cold, lime-juiced seafoods just right for hot weather; and first-rate coffee. (But steer clear of the heavy, wet french toast.)
Desserts at this writing are limited to fair-to-middling tarts (fresh fruits, damp, dense crusts and an excess of custard), and a couple of fine, simple cakes, made elsewhere. A special ice cream machine remains ordered but undelivered.
A final appraisal? Too soon for a place this new. Bilbo Baggins has a lot going for it: a dedicated staff, a charming (if sometimes hard-on-the-seat) environment, a skilled kitchen that can call on both imagination and restraint and reasonable prices. And don't forget that bread. It should have even more going for it if the entree list steadies. (In the case of Bilbo Baggins entree list, smaller may be better.) The ice cream machine wouldn't hurt either.