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July 07, 2008

Zorba's Bar & Grill

Cold Appetizer Plate Dominic Armato

Having just passed the midpoint of our two year sojourn to Baltimore and realizing that I've only sampled a small fraction of the foodstuffs on my list, I've found myself going through the mental checklist over the past couple of weeks. Deli? Check. Pit beef? A pretty good start. Mexican? Oh yeah... got that covered in spades. Even had some spectacular Chinese when that's the one thing I was told simply didn't exist here. But that still leaves a lot. I've got a decent start on crabs, but there's a long way to go and this summer is the last best chance. I've still never tasted scrapple. No trout sandwiches, no snowballs -- this is getting a little criminal. So I've resolved to step it up for the rest of the summer by any means necessary, and this weekend I kicked it off with a long overdue return to the next ethnic enclave over down Eastern Avenue.

Baltimore has a thriving little Greektown, and since a chow outing back around the holidays, I've been dying to get back to Zorba's Bar & Grill. Downstairs it's a local watering hole with a long bar, a few small tables and large window overlooking the kitchen. Upstairs it's considerably more sedate and less divey, but it's still casual and laid back with the same homey menu. If it wasn't already made obvious by the wall of meat slowly rotating in the kitchen window or, you know, the name of the joint, the menu makes it immediately clear that Zorba's specializes in all manner of fire-kissed beasts. But other less smoky classics are also available, and over two visits I managed to sample a few from both categories.

Grilled OctopusDominic Armato
Their cold appetizer plate gives you the opportunity to try a few options, and it's a little hit and miss. On the plus side are the chilled octopus, lightly marinated and pleasantly firm without getting anywhere close to rubbery, and a melitzanosalata that's a little timid with the seasonings, but still brings plenty of eggplant flavor and might even be preferred by those who like their vegetables relatively unadulterated. On the minus side is a largely flavorless feta and a taramosalata that's all salt and lemon with a little fish roe thrown in for the heck of it. Greek salad and fried calamari are exactly what you expect and nothing you'll remember. The grilled octopus appetizer, however, is a show stopper. Drenched in olive oil, lemon and herbs, it's marinated before being grilled, resulting in a black, charred exterior surrounding a moist and tender core. If ever you needed proof that carbon is a legitimate culinary goal, this is it. The few tastes I had on my first trip merely teased me, and I inhaled an entire plate on the second run. Killer dish.

MoussakaDominic Armato
The entrees followed the same pattern. Though the right half of the menu is dominated by grilled meats, my ladylove was feeling the moussaka and gave it a shot. Sadly, the moussaka was weak. It was mostly potato, with a thin layer of eggplant on the bottom, a little bit of ground beef strewn throughout and some tomato sauce painted on top. But more notable was the fact that it was borderline unseasoned. I looked for cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and oregano, and found none of the above. If they were there, they weren't doing much. The result was warm and hearty and utterly boring. Greek-style potatoes and rice voted present, contributing little more than starch to the table. But once again it was all about the grilled items, which were really, really excellent.

KontosouvliDominic Armato
The lamb chops, if a touch overcooked for my tastes, were beautifully seasoned, moist and tender. The kontosouvli suffered no such doneness issues, and it was the second-best dish to the grilled octopus on both occasions. Giant hunks of pork are very heavily seasoned with all of the usual suspects, then spit-roasted to the point of perfect succulence, haphazardly hacked up and unceremoniously dropped into a shallow bowl -- and the presentation couldn't be more appropriate. It hits the table as a big ol' pile of pig, and it eats that way too, lightly crisped and salty where it was kissed by the fire and tender and porky where it was protected within. I also had some mighty fine chicken which managed to avoid the all too common dryness, and they do a special lamb roast on the weekends that I need to get back for at some point.

So I think Zorba's is a hit and miss kind of place, but the hits are consistently awesome and the misses aren't going to make me crave them any less. Even better, gyros is nowhere to be found on the premises. Just know that while there are some tasty items to be found in other parts of the menu, you stray from the grilled meats at your own peril.

Zorba's Bar & Grill
4710 Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21224
5:00 PM - 2:00 AM

July 02, 2008

Harbor East Farmers' Market

Chioggia Beets from Brown's Cove Farm Dominic Armato

My cup runneth over, and the timing couldn't be better. It's been tough to post about restaurants since moving to Baltimore. The little fella's one and a half, and while he's extremely well-behaved, he's one and a half. So I've been trying to work the stove more these days, and summer is the perfect time to be doing so when you have access to great farmers' markets. I actually didn't hit the markets very often back in Chicago, and if you wonder why, look no further than the fact that most of my blog posts go up around 3:00 in the morning. When the best finds are on the table, I've usually been asleep for about four hours (to be clear, I say this with shame). But here, it's just too easy. Last summer I was pretty much floored by the enormous JFX viaduct market on Sundays, less than a mile from home, and then last month my weekend was made complete by the addition of the new Harbor East farmers' market, which is a mere three blocks from home here in Little Italy and commences at the far more nightowl-friendly hour of 9:00 AM. So for the past few weeks, I've been positively tickled to exercise my love of both farm fresh produce and sleep.

Three Springs Fruit FarmDominic Armato
The new Harbor East market is run by FRESHFARM Markets, a nonprofit that manages eight farmers' markets around the DC/Maryland area. Sadly, since there's nothing that can't be viewed through the prism of class warfare, the existence of the two markets within a mile of each other has sparked a bit of snark and controversy. There may also be an additional level of "old warhorse challenged by young interloper" that, as a recent import, I'm missing. But personally, as in all things, I prefer to leave my broad brush holstered and focus on the food. When I do -- well, if you were to ask me which I'd prefer to have in my neighborhood if I weren't allowed both, it's not even a question worth asking. The JFX market is really amazing. But this isn't a contest, and just because it's small doesn't mean the Harbor East market isn't worth visiting.

Honey from Breezy Willow FarmDominic Armato
The best way I can think to label it, loaded as the phrase may be, is a boutique farmers' market. It's very small, kinda hoity-toity, and the prepared food and non-edible stalls are as numerous as the ones pushing actual farmland products. Though the selection be small, however, the quality is right on. Like any boutique shop, a lot of the chaff is missing, and what's there is very carefully selected and of very high quality. It's not a place where you can go and expect to find whatever you need. Unless I missed others (very possible), basil was the only fresh herb present this past Saturday. But though I haven't walked away with much, I've enjoyed the ability to get a good look at everything and pick out a couple of items to build dishes around.

Berries from Three Springs Fruit FarmDominic Armato
Though I don't believe they're quite up to full speed just yet, I count three produce stands and three protein stands. Three Springs Fruit Farm has some squash and basil, and tomatoes made their first appearance this past weekend (even if all but one were gone by the time I arrived at 9:10), but as the name indicates, they're focusing on fruits and berries. Saturday saw cherries sweet and sour, blueberries, raspberries, apples and a sign heralding the arrival of peaches in three weeks' time. One Straw Farm has been the purveyor of all things leafy, pushing romaine, lettuce, collards, kale and chard, along with some beautiful radishes and beets. One Straw was also offering CSA shares, and I overheard them telling one interested shopper that the market could be her pickup point. My purchasing so far has mostly taken place at Brown's Cove Farm, by virtue of the fact that I went a little overboard with zucchini blossoms. But they also have a great deal of squash and zucchini, some potatoes and onions, the beautiful Chioggia beets you see at the top of the post, and a big ol' pile of sweet corn that made an appearance this week and has already highlighted two dinners.

Bread from Atwater's BakeryDominic Armato
As for all things meaty, Springfield Farm is covering a lot of bases, offering chicken, pork, ground beef and steaks, chicken and duck eggs and some homemade Merguez that caught my eye and I hope to utilize at some point. Looking at the website, they seem quite proud of their pigs, so I'm anxious to give their pork a try. Groff's Content Farm is focusing mostly on poultry at the moment, but it sounds like beef and lamb aren't too far off. And I'm pretty excited about the presence of Gunpowder Bison & Trading Co., which is exclusively offering their namesake... the meat, not the munitions. I've been playing with bison a bit lately, so the timing couldn't be better. I think bison Bolognese is next on the list. And I'm a sucker for jerky, which they also have on hand. Other edible options include some beautiful bread that I haven't yet sampled from Atwater's Bakery, honey from Breezy Willow Farm, and crepes once a month from Sofi's. Non-edibles round out the show with handmade soaps by RJ Caulder, an assortment of flowers and potted plants from Locust Point Flowers and some stunning orchids from The Little Greenhouse.

Orchids from The Little GreenhouseDominic Armato
So is the Harbor East farmers' market redundant? Yeah, kinda. I think the only thing it offers that the JFX market doesn't is the bison, which I'm kind of excited about, and cooking demonstrations by local chefs, which are entirely appropriate to the neighborhood but seem somewhat out of place to me. But while I can look for ways to compare it to the behemoth to the north and tear it down, I find myself far more inclined to appreciate it for what it is. It's a really pleasant little gathering right on the water, the limited number of stalls are very well balanced, and so far everything I've brought home with me has been wonderful. I don't think it's a destination event unless you live nearby or there's something specific you know you'll find there, but it's entirely worthwhile. Some hardcore marketgoers may scoff, but to deride it for what it isn't strikes me as unnecessary posturing and ignores what it is: a small scale, high quality well-organized market that's a lovely way to spend part of a Saturday morning and will assuredly yield some delicious spoils.

FRESHFARM Market at Harbor East
1000 Lancaster St.
(Between Exeter & Central)
Saturdays, 9:00 AM - 1:00 PM
Through October 25th