Letter from the Editor: Rebirth in Baltimore Vol: 68

October 2010

This year we were in DC for the Washington DC Area Rising Stars and it was just the excuse we needed to check out the food scene from my childhood. From urban chic fine dining to hip cocktail culture, Baltimore is abuzz with the burgeoning food and drink scene. The city’s proven there’s a potential for serious food, and that true sustainability and creativity are feasible in Maryland. It’s a city undergoing a rebirth of sorts. In-house charcuterie programs, cutting edge farm-to-bar cocktails and house-made brick oven pizzas are slowly chipping away at the status quo of crab, beers and burgers.

Take Woodberry Kitchen chef-owner Spike Gjerde. Produce like fresh apricots and cherries from the local Maryland watershed are preserved in season by the culinary team and put-by to last through the lengthy winter under the watchful eye of this James Beard nominee. Maryland is not widely considered an agricultural mecca , but what Gjerde does is all the more remarkable because it isn’t in sunny California where the growing season is practically year-round.

Gjerde shows a lot of commitment to the local movement. His dishes take their cue from hearty American and English dinners, but scream Maryland, with seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, whole goats from Many Rocks Farm, and more. Nose-to-tail takes on a whole new meaning here. The whole team pitches in to craft the in-house charcuterie. Slow-roasted off-cuts of goat top brick oven-fired pizzas like the cabrito, apricot reduction, and goat cheese-topped pizza we tried. Read all about iconic Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde, try his recipes, and watch his interview in our chef feature.

Over on Federal Hill, we met charcuterie and off-cuts nut Patrick Morrow at Bluegrass Tavern. Not many chefs take delivery of whole cow carcasses. But Morrow is up for a challenge, and loves this sustainable approach to proteins. He runs a cut-of-the-day program to rotate cuts ensuring the entire animal is used. Nothing goes to waste, with spot-on fresh beef salami, beef heart and tongue terrine and all kinds of charcuterie goodies served up on roughly-hewn wooden boards, garnished with house-made mustard and pickles. Hunting is a hobby for Morrow, so the flavors of elk and bison come naturally to him in the kitchen and work their way into the charcuteries and tartares too.

Another neighborhood in continual transition—Fell’s Point—isn’t exactly known for urban chic restaurants, but that’s just what we found at Salt, the hip brick walled restaurant complete with neon green lanterns and chalk signs. Chef Jason Ambrose’s plates range widely in culinary styles, but our favorite was his Tempura Maryland Blue Crab Roll with Sriracha Ginger Marshmallow.

We were excited to catch up with 2003 Miami Rising Star Chef E. Michael Reidt at B&O American Brasserie inside the gorgeous restored Beaux Arts-style Hotel Monaco. He left the sunny climes of Santa Barbara and his own restaurant Sevilla to join the Kimpton Hotel Group in Baltimore. Just over a year in, Reidt is excited about the potential Baltimore has for entrepreneurs, with major investment firms, cruise lines, and real estate opening up in the city and bringing opportunities with them. With an eye to value, Reidt opened the converted deli mid-recession surrounded by vacant office buildings. Getting in touch with local farmers outside of Baltimore and Western Pennsylvania, he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the product available, and set to work transforming it into innovative dishes with a Baltimore bent. He found the dining public surprisingly educated about food, desperate for more sophisticated dining options and (of course) under the full sway of the pork belly obsession that afflicted the rest of the country!

To further satisfy his quest for a sophisticated restaurant, Reidt has his cocktail den-worthy mixologist behind the bar at his restaurant. When most bartenders were mixing up rum and Cokes in Baltimore and pulling beers, Brendan Dorr was whipping up molecular cocktails complete with liquid nitrogen. His farm-fresh cocktail approach at B&O American Brasserie is a far-cry from that, but it’s clear he’s going to be game-changer in the city with house-made sodas, and signature drinks like his refreshing bourbon cocktail Hobo's Cola and Bourbon—equal parts warm spice and citrusy tang, with housemade cinnamon-infused cola, lemon, lime and orange zests and a brandied cherry.

Dorr’s friend and fellow mixologist Corey Polyoka over at Woodberry Kitchen takes full advantage of the seasonal fruits and vegetables from nearby farms and isn't hampered by standard ideas about garnishes. His Apricots in the Afternoon cocktail, made with Kluge Cru Aperitif Wine, Reeds Orchard Apricots, Fresh Orange Juice, and Orange Bitters is topped off with a skewered apricot pâte de fruits. The two feed off each others’ creativity—for example, Polyoka borrowed the name of his apricot cocktail from Dorr (with his permission of course!). What’s clear is this dynamic duo have latched on to something: Baltimore is ready for craft cocktails and there’s a niche for anyone able to make them with the same pizzazz that they do.

We'll going to be in Chicago next week, and will soon be visiting Houston, Paris, Pasadena, Baltimore, Barcelona, and San Sebastian, so reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out.

As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and keep up with me on Foursquare to stay posted on where I’m going and what I’m eating.

Antoinette Bruno