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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 übersimple 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
2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126
Baltimore, MD 21211
Sun - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM


Great report, Dom!

Just a note for you: your last picture's captions says "Lamb Shoulder with Blackberry Sauce" but it's a picture of the delicious sounding peach and berry cobbler you had.

I've been meaning to go to Woodberry what with the huge buzz about the place. Some friends and I went to the bar after a long meeting at the hopkins homewood campus which is close nearby. I really liked the space but was just blown away by the crowd. So I've planned a dinner there sometime between x-mas and new years when I'm back in baltimore.

Between you and the chowhound boards, I'm dying to try the flatbreads. Hmmm... do you think that the menu's probably different by the time I get there?

Ah! Thanks for the catch, Wangus... duly corrected.

I'm quite certain the menu will be different, not least of which because I'm only getting around to posting about a visit from nearly three months ago :-) But given what I saw, I've no doubt you'll find equally compelling options when you visit. If you think about it, pop back and let me know how it goes!

Nice review, and very timely. My wife and her friends are headed to Woodberry tonight for dinner.

Oh my word. That looks DELICIOUS. Too bad for me it's in Baltimore. Are there any places in Chicago with that simple-comfort-food-but-also-awesome vibe?

I'm with VisitBaltimore and we just did a video with Spike Gjerde from Woodberry Kitchen. In the video he tells us about the restaurant's menu and fresh produce as well its location and ambiance..Check it out at http://bit.ly/amqaDj

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