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February 06, 2008

Darker Than Blue

Dominic Armato
I've heard it said that good reviews are easy and bad reviews are easy. It's those ones in the middle that are tough to write. And even though I don't like to think of my writings as reviews (I like to think I'm just sharing my experience rather than speaking from a position of authority), I understand the sentiment. There are only so many ways to say "it was okay." But as tricky as it can be getting a handle on a meal that is neither good nor bad, it might be even trickier getting a handle on a meal that is both.

Enter Darker Than Blue. I've been attending regular events with some Baltimore Chowhounders (who have been kind enough to welcome me despite my lack of activity on that board), and tonight marked their Mardi Gras celebration. Casey Jenkins, the owner and head chef, is a friendly, energetic guy who loves great comfort food and great jazz and has put together a warm and lively room that was stuffed by our band of thirty. And our band of thirty was, in turn, stuffed by a special Mardi Gras menu that it would seem is something of a departure from the restaurant's regular fare.

Dominic Armato
Man, did we start off with a bang. This photo conveys neither the scale nor the potency of the bowl of gumbo set in front of me. Gumbo is not soup and I hate it when people try to make it so. No worries here, as Jenkins' take was exactly what I want from gumbo. It was dark, thick, spicy, intense and a little dirty. The roux was fully developed, the andouille was fresh and abundant, and in a particularly nice touch, the okra maintained its consistency with aplomb. It was a beautiful, bold dish that immediately got me excited about the rest of the meal, to say nothing of potential future meals.

So I snagged their regular menu only to discover that the evening's Cajun treats were nowhere to be found. Frankly, it left me confused. Jenkins espoused his down home approach while introducing his menu, but with items like chicken fingers, sliders, Buffalo wings and mini crabcakes, the appetizers read more like a bar menu than that of a midscale restaurant run by a CIA grad. The entrees appeared simple -- excessively so -- with items like fried chicken, baby back ribs and a NY strip with garlic mashed potatoes cashing in at $18+. I have absolutely nothing against upscale comfort foods. I'm quite fond of them, in fact. And I certainly don't mean to judge a menu without even having tried it, but it mostly left me wondering what he was doing to them to justify the price. It also illustrated that our host was, perhaps, a little out of his element on this particular evening, which went a ways towards explaining some issues later in the meal.

Dominic Armato
Anxious to get to the next dish after a great start, I was a little taken aback when Jenkins' Grilled Honey BBQ Shrimp Skewers hit the table. The dish's appearance was that of unremarkable mixed greens, plain grilled shrimp and institutional BBQ sauce, while the dish's reality was that of unremarkable mixed greens, plain grilled shrimp and a BBQ sauce that I suspect was institutional. While our first course seemed to indicate a skillful, careful approach, our second course just seemed haphazard and half-hearted. Serve them to me on separate days and I'd never suspect that they came out of the same kitchen. Sure, most places will have their hits and misses, but a chef that produces valiant successes also usually produces valiant failures. But these two dishes were so far out on opposite ends of the spectrum that I really wasn't sure what to expect next.

Dominic Armato
What we got next was a small dish containing what Jenkins seems to consider a signature dish of sorts. A side on his regular menu, the mac and cheese was a warm, gooey little mess that, much like the music at times, was kinda blue. Though he apologized for being unable to obtain his usual Maytag blue, I'm not convinced that whatever he came up with as a substitute wasn't a better choice. The blue wasn't in lieu of the usual mac and cheese pantheon, but rather an additional accent that surprised me by how well it blended in. Though Jenkins' business partner joked about giving away their secret ingredient, there really wouldn't have been any guesswork involved. But it absolutely didn't dominate. The blue cheese made its presence known, but played well with others, making for a very welcome little twist on a comfort classic. Score one more for Dr. Jekyll.

Dominic Armato
And then Mr. Hyde appeared once again, this time in the form of Black Skillet Andouille Jambalaya. The accompanying corn bread, sweet and moist, and whipped sweet potato butter were nice enough accompaniments, but the main event should have been an accompaniment itself. I could easily ignore the fact that it wasn't like any jambalaya I'd ever had if it were an otherwise great dish, but instead it was our second head-scratcher of the night. It was more rice pilaf than jambalaya, with a few bits of vegetable and sage and a token chunk of andouille. Had it been seated beneath a piece of grilled fish and surrounded by a puddle of sauce I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. At worst, I would have considered it an uninspired but perfectly adequate accompanying starch. But as a standalone dish, it just fell flat. Everyone present passed around the table's saltshaker (was the dish tasted before it left the kitchen?), and though significantly improved, it wasn't nearly enough.

Dominic Armato
Our next dish was much in the same vein as the last -- technically competent, but mostly boring. A large fillet of cornmeal-crusted and fried catfish sat atop a monster pile of plain grits, and was accompanied by vinegared cucumbers and tomatoes and clarified butter. I'm all for simple. But if you're going to do something as simple as cornmeal-crusted catfish with plain grits, it had better be awesome. It wasn't awesome. It was worthy, with a flaky, moist interior and nicely crisped crust. But the grits were completely unseasoned (and overly abundant), the fried fish and butter absolutely demanded acid, and while the vegetables provided some, they did so in a wholly uninspiring manner. Give those vegetables some interest, season the grits somehow or work some kind of acid into that butter to make a tart sauce and this is a totally different dish. But as it stood, while I hate to use such a generic adjective, it was bland.

Dominic Armato
And this is where the service, which had been slowing down throughout the evening, came to a screeching halt. The break between the catfish and the next dish was over 45 minutes, and with dinner approaching four hours on a school night, we suffered some serious attrition. As mentioned, we completely filled the place and they admirably (or perhaps arrogantly) attempted to individually plate and serve thirty servings for each course, so this may or may not have any bearing on their typical ability to expedite, but even the most gung ho of the bunch started flagging. And then, just when the crowd dropped to single digits and we were getting ready to write off the evening, out came another delicious dish.

It wasn't as tight as it should have been (clearly something was going on back there), but the flavor was back with a vengeance and we ended up with a really enjoyable finish. A pecan-crusted slice of pork loin came with mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed spinach and a Kahlua cream sauce that incorporated, of all things, cantaloupe and honeydew melon. It was a rather unconventional take on the pork and fruit combination that would have raised eyebrows had it been disclosed in full up front, but hey, it worked, and that's all that matters. What's more, the pork was beautifully cooked, moist and tender and a wee bit pink, just as it should be.

I honestly don't know what to make of the place. I'm hesitant to read too much into it, given the large group, huge menu and the fact that it seemed such a glaring departure from his regular fare. I'd still like to think I can get a good handle on what a chef is capable of, even under such unusual circumstances, but I don't know that I've ever had a meal that was so oddly hit and miss. I don't know if he overreached and tried to pad the menu with dishes that really shouldn't have been there -- less really would have been more with the right cuts -- but it was like two different chefs were trading courses. The talented one would compose and send out a nice dish, then the less-than-talented one would tag in and throw a few things together that were lying around. One thing's for certain. The very first dish (and a couple of subsequent offerings) demonstrated that great things can emerge from that kitchen. After hearing how much we enjoyed it, Jenkins said he was considering adding the gumbo to his regular menu and it would be a great move. That's a dish that would bring me back. But it would be with the feeling that whatever followed it could be rich and comforting or flat and tasteless... who knows? If our dinner was any reflection of the regular menu, there's plenty of room for optimism. I prefer to keep my dining and my gambling separate, however, so I don't know that I'm ready to go running back until I hear a few more good things.

Or until that gumbo goes on the menu.

Darker Than Blue
3034 Greenmount Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21218
Tue - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 8:00 PM

February 01, 2008


Dominic Armato

I can't remember the last time I added a new beast to the list of ones I've tried, but a visit to a great little Peruvian joint (about which I'll be posting shortly) afforded me just that opportunity.

What you see here, with apologies to anybody who cuddled one as a kid, is Cuy Frito, or fried guinea pig. I'm sure there are those who will squirm at the thought of consuming our furry little friends, but while guinea pigs have been treated as domesticated pets in the West since the 16th century, they've been raised as a food source in the Andes, to which they're native, for millenia. If you subscribe to the theory that any given type of animal should be universally treated as pet or meat but not both (I don't), this one's a losing argument if you're on the pet side of the aisle.

In any case, it's a very common dish in Peru, from which this particular little fella actually originated. Apparently fresh guinea pig of the eatin' variety is a little difficult to come by in these parts, so this one was frozen and shipped in from Peru. My take? Very reminiscent of quail, actually, but a little sweeter and less gamey. Though I enjoyed it, I'm not in a big hurry to have it again. But I'd also like to try some that hasn't seen the deep freeze before settling too strongly on that opinion.

More Peruvian treats shortly... the restaurant where I got this is a great little spot that I'm anxious to share.