Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; until 9 p.m. on Sunday. Prices: Most appetizers about $3; dinner entrees $6 to $8. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
If you haven't been to The Magic Pan in a few years, you've got a surprise coming: It's not just for crepes anymore. Apparently the chain (which includes several outlets in the Maryland suburbs) decided that a restaurant cannot live by crepes alone, and now offers a dozen or so standard entrees called "saute specialties," ranging from pastas to steaks. The noncrepe items generally are very good -- better, in fact, than most of the dinner crepes.
Reasonable prices prevail at The Magic Pan, with most entrees in the $6 to $8 range, including a sizable and very good salad. And you don't forgo an attractive setting for the sake of price. It's a very handsome place, with quiet lighting and acoustics, and -- a big plus -- a nonsmoking section. The only jarring note amid all this comfort is the chairs, which somehow don't fit the anatomy properly.
A good appetizer choice is cheese fritters, lightly fried and with a fluffy, grease-free cheese filling. Even better -- a delightful surprise -- is the excellent fettuccine alfredo, with what tastes like fresh pasta, cooked al dente, and nothing more than a bit of cream, cracked pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. First class.
But avoid the "garden nibblers," heavy little knobs of battered vegetables, overbreaded and overfried.
When a place charges for bread, expectations run high. But at The Magic Pan, the "french bread" in the $1.95 bread basket tastes like a warmed sub roll, the good cheese spread notwithstanding. This is one of the few poor buys on the menu.
Like the fettuccine, the veal at The Magic Pan is top-notch, succulent medallions, pale, tender and fine-textured. The veal marsala is remarkably good, with fresh mushrooms and a tasty, wine-zipped sauce. Steak picado, with chunks of good meat, tomato and onion in a nice garlicky sauce, is another winner. So is the strip sirloin steak, a big portion of reasonably flavorful, juicy beef.
Fettuccine with chicken is an excellent dish, too, with fine, chewy paste, chunks of fresh chicken filet, and lively celery and spinach. The cream sauce is the real thing -- unthickened, not in the least gummy or cloying, and applied with restraint. In contrast, the granular glue of a sauce in the crepe St. Jacques seems to have been made in another, less enlightened kitchen. (Maybe it's an old recipe left over from a less enlightened time in the history of The Magic Pan.)
If you're going to have a dinner crepe, better choices would be the beef bourguignon or ratatouille.
Not all the pasta dishes are as successful as the fettuccine. Manicotti is so dominated by a thick cheese topping and a puddle of oil at the bottom of the casserole that the pasta and ricotta filling can scarcely be found.
This is a place for good desserts, so save room. The mocha crepe has a wonderful sauce with bits of dark chocolate and a deep coffee flavor, and the chocolate puff sundae uses a good puff pastry and topping.
The Magic Pan has proved delightfully durable, a lovely place with good value for your dining-out dollar. If you sidestep the poorer dishes, particularly the cheese or cream-sauced crepes, you can have a very good meal at a very modest price.