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Restaurant review: Level keeps its small plates local

Dining and DrinkingRestaurantsAnnapolisFleetwood Mac (music group)

"Level, a small plates lounge" is the formal name of a terrific little restaurant in the heart of Annapolis.

Open since October 2009, Level hasn't been exactly languishing in obscurity; multiple awards and commendations have come its way, and it's earned them. There are wonderful things to eat here: a Cuban pork spring roll that we ordered, ate like maniacs, and ordered again; handmade gnocchi in a plate-licking mustard-and-garlic sauce; a simple satay featuring grilled Gunpowder bison, served with an agave marinade. All of them are all part of Level's "regional comfort food" message, and they all deliver.

Everything about Level works well. If you get the feeling that there might be something missing — say, a compelling vision that goes beyond well-wrought comfort food — the nice exchange is that you spend your time focused on your friends and not on the restaurant's mission. Fleetwood Mac came in over the sound system at one point, and Level works like a good Fleetwood Mac song — it makes you feel good without asking you to work at it.

Don't be put off by the idea of a "lounge." Level's home is a contemporary and comfortable brick-walls and wood-floors space on West Street with good, broad dimensions. A curved bar is toward the back, and just beyond it is an open kitchen. So many restaurants in Baltimore operate out of a former living space or industrial space, but Level's space works on a human scale, and you feel neither cramped nor overwhelmed in it.

New diners are greeted quickly at a well-positioned host stand. A server arrives shortly after diners are seated and gently dispenses information about navigating the single-page menus of hand-crafted cocktails and small plates. (A small thing. Napkins and flatware aren't brought over until after the first food order is placed. I like having a napkin on my lap right away.)

The cocktail menu is worth your time. It's generally a good sign when the ingredients don't read like the contents of a kid's juicebox. A white cherry Manhattan, made with Death's Door White Whisky, vermouth and bitters, hits you like moonshine; a Cucumber Collins is prettily topped off with cucumber foam; and an oyster shooter packs a good little wallop with a shot of tequila. These cocktails are in the $8-$9 range, and you'd have no trouble finding places where you'd pay more for the same. They took absolutely forever to arrive at the table, the only glitch in an otherwise seamless and well-served meal.

The wine list is overwhelmingly Californian and disarmingly simple. Almost every bottle is priced at $38. The handful of premium bottles are priced at cost plus a $38 corkage fee (that rates as a steal). Wines are available by the glass as well, and the staff is smart about making recommendations.

The printed menu, credited to Alfredo Malinis Jr., comes with the by-now-familiar messages about sourcing from local farms and following the seasons. Level's food manages to be lovely and delicious without ever seeming tricky or stuffy, accessible without ever feeling lazy.

The plates, about 30 in all, are divided into three main sections: shared plates, which are intended as starters, followed by categories of "regional plates" and "not-so-classic classics." I'm not entirely what those last two labels mean, and they're no help at all for a diner embarking on a small-plate meal. If those category names are cute, the food is just straight-on good.

Pickled vegetables were on the menu when we visited, and what a treat they were: beets, turnips and two varieties of radishes, a perfect little snack for cocktail time. Level did lovely work with its presentation of regional cheeses, outfitted with a variety of sweet and savory tapenades and chutneys. Crispy and lightly seasoned cracker-size flatbreads come at an extra cost but are worth it.

Absolutely share a plate or two of the Cuban spring rolls. Stuffed with braised pork, pickles and shallots, and quartered for easy dipping into a tangy habanero sauce; they're a brilliant assault of full fatty flavor. When we ordered a second batch of them, the server's response suggested that he'd figured as much. And don't pass up the hearty grilled rockfish cassoulet, a little triumph of perfect cooking technique — firm and flaky, as wanted.

Sauteed seasonal greens don't look like much, but they're handled with great authority, a simple application of white wine, garlic and shallots. They're a necessary addition to your table. The gnocchi are given a light grilling, which makes them a much firmer vehicle for swiping into that rich and robust mustard-garlic sauce, spiked with just a scattering of red pepper flakes.

The main menu's rare moment of gimmickry is "fishsticks," strips of panko-coated rockfish served in a little version of a deep-frying basket. The strips are golden-crispy and tasty, the gimmick actually pretty sweet. The accompanying yuzu tartare sauce was a little stinky for me, though, as if it had spent time near a durian fruit.

What did we miss? About 20 or so other tempting plates, including a pork stew with root vegetables, sea scallops with pork belly and dinosaur kale, a daily risotto and a selection of topped flatbreads.

The cuteness missing from the main menu shows up at dessert — things like milk and cookies or homemade peanut butter and jelly ice cream, chocolate banana bread pudding. They're fine, you bet, but a warm plum puff-pastry tart with whipped cream is divine. Coffee at Level is served in a French press, and a good selection of ports and dessert wines are available.

This place is on the level.

Have you been to Level in Annapolis? Write your own review.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Level

Where: 69 West St., Annapolis

Contact: 410-268-0003, http://www.levelsmallplateslounge.com

Hours: Open for Dinner seven nights a week

Prices: Appetizers, $6-14-$ Entrees, $6-$12

Food: ✭✭✭ 1/2

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭

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