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November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Turkey Dominic Armato

This year's turkey courtesy of Leslie Scudiere.

November 23, 2008

My Readers Have Failed Me

Let me get this straight.

There's a restaurant in Baltimore that's casual but classy, serves an inexpensive menu full of homey but creative comfort food, is totally laid back and welcomes kids to the point that you can sit at a table next to a play area with a sofa, easel, tons of books and toys... and you guys didn't tell me???

Regular dining out has returned to our household. More after I've had a chance to sample a few more items.

November 21, 2008

Woodberry Kitchen

Bread and Butter Dominic Armato

Midrange dining in Baltimore has been exceptionally good to us lately, not to mention more frequent. We've still had fewer opportunities in a year and half than we could on a week long vacation, but I call two nights out in three months progress. Our trip to Woodberry Kitchen actually predated my excursion to Salt, coming on the last day of August when grandma was visiting, available for toddler-sitting, and my ladylove and I were in the mood for something homey and comforting. What we got was exactly what we expected, just better than we expected.

Warm Peaches with Olive Oil and SaltDominic Armato
Arguably still the new hotness in Baltimore, even a year after opening, the place was buzzing even for an early 6:00 reservation. It's a clever if unconventional space, a vertical ex-foundry turned rustic brick box with open kitchen, two story stack of firewood, decrepit farm implements and worn wooden tables that spill out onto a large patio when the weather permits. The open kitchen, seated in the shadow of a massive throwback letterboard menu, is centered on a wood-fired oven, and the staff is done up in retro-folksy attire, sporting denim or sewing circle floral print sundresses. It ends up coming across more high concept than genuinely homey, especially since the playlist is a little heavy on early '90s alternative, but it still works, making for a warm and comfortable atmosphere that stops short of striking a theme restaurant vibe. Our last minute reservation stuck us, ostensibly, in one of the less desirable locations -- at the end of the long L-shaped balcony lining two walls. But setting aside the temperature issues (we were toasty), I actually dug the vantage point, from which we could watch the bustle below. So we settled in and perused the menu.

Deviled Eggs with Chipped HamDominic Armato
The scattershot structure of the menu has generated both appreciation and confusion. It's surprisingly large, encompassing small plates, tiny tastes, traditional appetizers and entrees, munchies and sides complete with special sections for oysters and flatbreads. Though some have found it overwhelming, I found myself a fan of the flexibility it offered, not to mention the easy excuse to try a couple of extra items (an excuse that would later prove to be my downfall). The items themselves are mostly very simple comfort foods, almost exclusively seasonal, with a few curveballs throw in here and there. Its intense focus on the bounty of the Chesapeake region has earned Woodberry Kitchen praise that utilizes all of the current culinary buzzwords -- local, sustainable, organic -- and while I don't for a moment wish to diminish the admirable work chef/owner Spike Gjerde has put into building a impressive stable of suppliers, I'll leave the greener discussion for the true champions of the movement. Speaking in all honesty, my interest in such matters begins and mostly ends with how they affect the deliciousness of what hits the table. And what hit our table was, indeed, delicious.

Potted PorkDominic Armato
My little corner of Baltimore foodnerdia was abuzz this summer with the unscientific yet unshakeable feeling that this year's local peaches were, for reasons unknown, particularly lush and peachy. Having heard this, and being predisposed to the fruit, my ladylove couldn't pass on the ├╝bersimple peach starter, sliced and warmed in the oven before being drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Nothing to it, but undeniably delicious, and its very presence spoke to the spirit of the place. I started off simply myself, having spotted one of my weaknesses on the menu. A small snack plate of three deviled eggs scattered with bits of chipped ham were similarly minimal, and the eggs themselves were fresh and wonderful, though the tartness of the mustard in the seasoning was overly aggressive for my tastes.

Ham, Nectarine and Gouda FlatbreadDominic Armato
That my first plate was labeled a snack entitled me, I thought, to an actual appetizer as well. While I miraculously managed to resist the pork belly, I was unable to avoid the beast in its entirety, opting for the potted pork. Is this a regional favorite? Though I'm not unfamiliar with the term, I believe this was the first time I'd actually encountered it on a menu. It's close enough to rillettes de porc, though, that I suppose it's largely a matter of semantics. In any case, I'm partial to pork fat, potted or otherwise, and was delighted to find this version accompanied by a good mustard, slivers of onion and a small assortment of breads and crackers. The variety of vehicles was a nice touch, and the texture of the pork was beautifully creamy and silky smooth. A part of me wished it had been a little more aggressively seasoned, but another part of me enjoyed the humble simplicity of it.

Hanger Steak with Creamed CornDominic Armato
No such semantic excuse applied to our after-appetizers-before-entrees course, but the wood oven downstairs beckoned, and my ladylove and I split a flatbread. This section of the menu was somewhat less conventional than the rest, and with options like house smoked coho salmon, marinated peaches, peppers and chervil; spinach, peter peppers, garlic and feta; and shrimp, local corn, poblanos and sungold tomatoes, this was one of the more intense menu negotiations in recent memory. We settled, however, on a pizza topped with ham, nectarines, gouda and basil, and were very happy with the result. It had the same salty/sweet fruity/meaty vibe of a classic Hawaiian, except... you know... good, and the nutty gouda played off both just right. Of course, wood fired pizza lives and dies by the quality of the bread, and while Woodberry wouldn't unseat the best dedicated pizza specialists, this specimen was good enough that if the flatbread section of the menu were spun off and expanded into its own restaurant, it would have my full support. Great flavor, nice chew, crisp in the right places with some lovely char, this was a really enjoyable pizza.

Lamb Shoulder with Blackberry SauceDominic Armato
When it came to entrees, we were feeling meaty. I was feeling unusually so, and did something I rarely do, opting for a steak. My jaw and I were feeling saucy, so I went with the chewy and flavorful hanger steak, which was accompanied by some fresh arugula, a mix of roasted peppers and a dish of creamed corn. It was simply and beautifully done, a great piece of beef just ever so slightly seasoned with an extremely familiar spice I couldn't quite put my finger on (and that I'm sure will embarrass me when somebody points it out). The roasted peppers were, for all intents and purposes, totally naked, and the creamed corn was a rustic, chunky take that avoided the common trap of being a thick, creamy mess and instead kept the focus on the vegetable.

Chocolate CakeDominic Armato
A few tastes of my ladylove's dish didn't do much to reward me for my break with convention. She followed my playbook in choosing the lamb shoulder with preserved eggplant, succotash and blackberry sauce, and if my steak was very good, hers was terrific. Much like the hanger steak, it started with a fantastic, intensely flavored piece of meat, perfectly cooked. Tender and sweet but encased with a caramelized crust, it sat atop an impossibly fresh pile of corn and lima beans, it was grounded by the eggplant puree, and highlighted by an intense but naturally sweet blackberry sauce. The downside to the seasonal menu, and a thought that pains me, is that we'll have bidden Baltimore farewell by the time this dish has the opportunity to come around again.

Peach and Berry CobblerDominic Armato
Desserts took an eternity and a routine worthy of the Keystone Cops to arrive, though the difficulties were handled appropriately and politely by a manager. They were homey and hearty and exactly what the rest of the menu would lead you to expect. My ladylove's warm chocolate cake was rather conventional and didn't do much to stand out, but it would capably scratch the itch for any chocoholic even if it didn't send them home dreaming about an encore. I had better luck with my selection. I saved my peach fix for dessert, plowing through a warm peach and berry cobbler that was hot and gooey, crusty on the edges and topped with a cold scoop of ice cream. I had no business even attempting more food at that point, but managed to demolish it, nonetheless. Barely.

We came away -- waddled away -- very impressed and anxious to return. We had a couple of misses, but they weren't so numerous or so significant that they detracted from a great meal. Though Gjerde's menu certainly isn't without its creative and unconventional touches, at heart this is very simple, honest food that's elevated just a touch and prepared exceptionally well. When you work as hard as he has to source great, fresh, seasonal ingredients, the best thing you can do is get out of their way, and that's precisely what he does. Woodberry Kitchen is warm, it's comfy, and between the size of the menu and its constant rotation, there's a lot to explore. It isn't so much an occasion restaurant as the kind of place where I'd love to have a standing reservation, returning on a regular basis and expecting a simple, satisfying meal every time. Just maybe not this big every time.

Woodberry Kitchen
www.woodberrykitchen.com
2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126
Baltimore, MD 21211
410-464-8000
Sun - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

Potted Pork

Today's post is running just a wee bit late (a day at most), so here's a little taste to tide you over.

November 18, 2008

In Defense of the McRib

The McRib Photo Courtesy of Gary Wiviott

No, I didn't spend the three month layoff in Des Plaines, Illinois undergoing intense psychological reprogramming in a bunker beneath McDonald's HQ. But today, I'm going to stand up for the McRib. And not just for the McRib, but for that which the McRib represents, though we'll get to that later. This discussion starts with the discovery not only of the fact that I dig the crime against food pictured above, but that I'm far from alone... even among otherwise discerning food nerds.

With the most recent reintroduction of the sandwich to the Chicago market (are boneless pigs in season again?), an old thread over at LTH Forum, started two years ago by one Mr. Gary Wiviott in a moment of exasperation, was bumped back into action. Gary, you see, is a hardcore BBQ enthusiast, and not of the "slather a grilled chicken breast or boiled ribs with ketchup and liquid smoke and call it BBQ" variety. No, Gary's a true devotee of the low and slow method of turning meat into succulent, smoky bliss that is, along with jazz, one of the few true American art forms. As such, what surprised me about the thread wasn't Gary's violent reaction to the reappearance of his nemesis. Though he's able to maintain good humor about the subject, I've no doubt that on a deep, emotional level, Gary sees the McRib as an affront to all that is good and true in this twisted, cruel world. His reaction was (and is, every time the McRib resurfaces) entirely predictable, and the thread is certainly not lacking for like-minded individuals. Less expected, however, was the outpouring of self-loathing love for the meaty monstrosity that also followed.

White Castle's Chicken Rings
I shouldn't have been that surprised. Except for the most hardcore fuelers and dogmatic natural organic cheerleaders -- and let's face it, those people are boring -- I don't know anybody who doesn't have some culinary skeletons in the closet. Scour your kitchen cabinets, try to remember what you demolished in your last alcohol-induced haze, search the dark recesses of your soul for that fatty, salty, megasweet, oveprocessed and mass marketed guilty pleasure you try to forget about until the craving strikes (or, more likely, its commercial airs), and try to tell me it's intrinsically better than what you see pictured above. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't those who are genuinely outraged by the McRib, nor that they shouldn't be, necessarily. We all pick our poisons and the McRib may not be yours. But presuming that we can all find common ground in loving certain highly offensive foodstuffs -- armed with the knowledge that the picture above could just as well be the thing you're embarrassed to admit you ate last week -- what is it about the McRib that is so inherently offensive to so many?

The answer, I think, is in the moniker Gary chose to attach to the object of his scorn: The McFib.

Personally, I find the McRib's lack of real food qualities to be rather endearing. But there was a level on which I could completely sympathize. I've been similarly afflicted by a burning hatred for The Olive Garden since first visiting them in high school. But when I reflect upon the true root of my scorn, I'm forced to admit that it has nothing to do with the food. It's terrible, sure, but... well... look up. I'm in no position to throw stones. Rather, what burns me every time I see an Olive Garden ad is that it's being presented as authentic Italian cuisine that's lovingly prepared by chefs who have trained in Tuscany. It's the lie that gets me. So for a hardcore 'cue nerd, what's not to hate about the McRib? It's a meat patty slathered in sauce. There's no smoke. There are no ribs. Hell, I'm not even entirely certain the thing is made of pork. Yet I've no doubt that over the next month, the River North McDonald's will sell more fake ribs than all of the south side BBQ shrines combined will sell real ones. For a huge segment of the population, the McRib IS BBQ. And that chaps Gary's ass.

The thing is, in this golden age of irony and self-awareness, it doesn't need to be this way. McDonald's could take a cue (no pun intended) from White Castle in embracing the McRib's fakeness. Why go through the pretense of making the patty vaguely rib-shaped? White Castle had the right idea with its Chicken Rings. If you're going to process something so thoroughly into oblivion that it can't possibly hope to resemble the original beast in any way, why not embrace the fakeitude and make it the most unnatural shape possible? I, for one, think they should stamp the McDonald's logo into the patty, shape it like the silhouette of a cartoon pig and call it the McVaguelyPorkish. All absurd questions of authenticity fully preempted, we'll be free to simply enjoy the sandwich for what it is: processed, fused meat paste in a sickly sweet sauce. It won't be any closer to actual BBQ, but it'll be honest. And perhaps more importantly, it will help us to be honest with ourselves. As food nerds, we can labor all day over the perfect Ragu alla Bolognese, we can scour the nation's strip malls in search of that undiscovered gem of an ethnic restaurant, we can travel thousands of miles for fleeting moments of gastronomic bliss unattainable at home... and then we can have a McRib. Without feeling guilty about it.

November 14, 2008

Salt

Foie Gras & Kobe Beef Slider Dominic Armato

A few months ago, a thought occurred to me. Charm City Hounds has been such a great group, and we've hit some outstanding places, but while the bastard stepchild of Chowhound's Baltimore board was borne of the "combing the strip malls and back alleys in search of under-the-radar grub" philosophy -- one I lovingly embrace and strive to practice constantly -- why be dogmatic about it? There is, indeed, nothing like falling into a place like Grace Garden, feasting almost weekly with great company on outstanding ethnic cuisine, and then watching a previously unknown gem receive glowing write up after glowing write up from the mainstream press as word trickles out. But as much as discoveries like that drive us, ethnic holes-in-the-wall don't hold the monopoly on deliciousness. One thing I suppose I am dogmatic about is the belief that great grub exists at all price points and all levels of refinement, and delicious food deserves our respect independent of how much it costs or where we obtain it. So I figured, hey, just for kicks, why don't we see how everybody cleans up and I'll organize an outing to one of the swankier Baltimore eateries that have been languishing on my to-do list for months? And while I don't anticipate that this type of outing will (or should) become common for CCH, it turned out to be a good call.

Scallop CevicheDominic Armato
In truth, "swanky", even if applied relative to our usual haunts, doesn't really apply to Salt. I might be willing to concede "hip", what with the funky, creative menu, minimally high-concept name and chartreuse light fixtures. But the "Tavern" part of the restaurant's name, though usually relegated to a subtitle or omitted altogether, is no conceit. Though the brick row house just off Patterson Park now houses a rather sharp looking bar and midrange restaurant, at heart this is a cozy, welcoming neighborhood operation helmed and co-owned by the cheery and enthusiastic Jason Ambrose, who couldn't have been more accommodating when I threatened to descend upon him with 13 other food nerds for a special tasting menu that he'd have to devise for the evening. We set a price point, I asked him to show us what he could do, and he showed us a great time.

Foie Gras & Kobe Beef SliderDominic Armato
The first plate to land in front of us was a scallop ceviche, and a friend's classification of Ambrose as "a flavor guy" was immediately borne out. An obscenely fresh scallop was sliced and cured ever so slightly in an orange and lime dressing with onion, orange, cilantro, orange, Cusco corn, orange and orange. The intensity of the orange flavor -- entirely welcome -- shoved the needle from the sour over to the sweet end of the sweet/sour continuum, referencing the dish's Peruvian roots while taking a fresh angle. Though I enjoyed the dressing, what made the dish for me was just how lightly the scallop had been cured. It was just barely coaxed out of a completely raw state, succulent, cool and tender, and it maintained an extremely clean flavor that was more sashimi than ceviche.

Cape May FlukeDominic Armato
The only place where we exerted any influence was with our second course, a staple of the regular menu and one of Ambrose's signature dishes, that was a happy concession to popular demand. Ambrose places a small Kobe beef patty on a miniature bun, tops it with a generous slab of seared foie gras, dresses it with truffle aioli and a sweet onion marmalade, and serves it alongside duck fat fries. And while I'm on record as a fierce opponent of the continued debasement of the term "Kobe Beef", if the dish is always this good, as far as I'm concerned Ambrose can call it whatever he damn well pleases. A brief flirtation with my flatware succumbed to a gut instinct that a slider should be grasped by the fingertips, no matter how gussied up. It's an approach I highly recommend. Not only is there something primal about sinking into something this rich and decadent, but it gives you an incredible noseful of beef, foie and truffle aroma that you'd only get a hint of otherwise. A year, almost to the day, since I tried the (in)famous DB Burger, I learned that when it comes to putting Kobe, foie and truffles on a bun, Daniel Boulud has nothing on Jason Ambrose. This is not hyperbole. This is a dynamite dish.

Steak 'n EggsDominic Armato
Our third and fourth courses were notable in that they were both dishes that I would ordinarily regard with a certain level of suspicion, but which won me over nonetheless. I'm ordinarily not a fan of stacking seafoods. I think the results tend to get messy. But the Cape May Fluke worked in both oyster and lobster surprisingly well. The fish, tender and moist, was set atop a root vegetable and bacon hash, topped with an exceptionally crispy breaded and fried oyster, and dressed with lobster butter. I think it worked because the oyster and lobster (a very subtle flavor in the context of the dish), were treated as accents rather than costars. The crunch of the oyster kept the rest from becoming texturally bland, the butter nicely married root vegetable and fresh fish, and the dish only fell short of excellence, in my estimation, for want of a bit of brightness. I think a touch of acid would have made it pop, and even the tabasco in the oyster's marinade may have done the trick had it been a little more prominent. But the fact that I cared so much that it was thisclose speaks, I think, to its ingenuity. Even in its 95% state, I really enjoyed it.

Ice CreamDominic Armato
I was a little dismayed, initially, to discover that our second beefy offering of the evening would be tenderloin. In most cases, I'm not a fan of tenderloin. I find its flavor underwhelming and its texture overvalued. But I can, on occasion, be won over, and this was one of those times. The Steak 'n Eggs was Ambrose's play on breakfast, incorporating all of the requisite elements into a creative dish that was undeniably dinner. He first added interest to the usually bland tenderloin by lightly smoking it, then seasoned and cooked it perfectly, topped it with a fried quail egg and an espresso demi-glace, and paired it with a blue cheese stuffed doughnut hole. Tenderloin needs to be dressed up, in my opinion, and rarely have I seen it done so creatively and skillfully. It's still filet, and I have my prejudices in that regard, but I was surprised by the extent to which I enjoyed it.

Cookie JarDominic Armato
Our final course, "Childish Desserts", was skillfully prepared, if not nearly up to the enticing standards of the rest of the meal. Racks of ice cream cones lined our long table, featuring a very intense vanilla, light chocolate, and a dulce de leche that, sadly, I didn't have the chance to sample. Cookie jars contained an assortment of specimens, including some particularly nice macarons. But with the caveat that I'm one who would often elect to receive another savory course over dessert, I could have done without. It was a pleasantly sweet finish, to be sure, but my brain was stuck on the earlier courses and, quite frankly, still is. Our opportunities to get out for nice dinners have been precious few here in Baltimore, but Salt is, thus far, my favorite. There are seats at the bar, the kitchen's open pretty late and I hear the lamb stroganoff is awesome. I might have to sneak out a few times before we skip town.

Salt
www.salttavern.com
2127 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21231
410-276-5480
Mon5:00 PM - 10:00 PMBar closes at 11:00
Tue - Wed5:00 PM - 10:00 PMBar closes at 12:00
Thu - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PMBar closes at 1:00