For years, one word summed up Baltimore's dining scene: tradition. We had our tried and true institutions, serving dishes our grandparents had ordered before us, and we tasted history and familiarity in every bite. But things have been changing lately. This past year saw the disappearance of many old favorites: Jeannier's, Rudys' 2900, and (unless Peter Angelos wants to tell us differently) Marconi's, that granddaddy of them all. In their place, new ventures have sprung up—edgy, energetic places like Pazo and The Wine Market, or modern bistros like Limoges and Brasserie Tatin (the latter of which was too new to be considered for this list).
And suddenly, tradition just isn't enough. Sure, many veteran establishments are still on the list this year. But longtime readers of this feature will notice that several others are not. That's because the newcomers have upped the level of competition. It makes it an exciting time to be a food critic—though a difficult one, as well, since tougher competition leads to correspondingly tougher decisions. After two months spent trying out each of some 70 candidates, we—food and wine writer John Farlow, Associate Editor Hannah Feldman, and dining critic Bianca Sienra—agonized over the final list. We weighed each restaurant's strengths based on four criteria—food, ambiance, service, and value—and finally asked ourselves this vital question: Would we spend our own money there? In the case of all 50 of these restaurants, the answer is yes.
But all such decisions are, by nature, subjective. We realize that our own experiences and preferences color our judgment. Obviously, we can't say too much about ourselves—after all, we have to stay anonymous when we dine—but we thought we'd give a little background about some of our earliest food experiences to let you understand what's important to us. A little glimpse into the past—while the list itself offers an exciting map of the region's new dining present.
Abacrombie Fine Foods, 58 W. Biddle Street, 410-244-7227. Expensive. Abacrombie is an exercise in thoughtful restraint. The dining rooms are plainly done in white-painted brick, the service is formal but not obsequious, and the food is deceptively simple in appearance. The small, two-page menu changes regularly to take advantage of what's fresh, but on our last visit we were stunned by a consommé studded with shrimp, avocado, and fresh corn that lets the individual ingredients outshine the impressive underlying technique used to assemble them. Likewise, we found ourselves marveling at the way house-smoked hake contrasted with sweet dill-laced carrots, instead of at the effort taken to smoke one's own fish. We recommend anything Southern-inflected on the menu—chef Sonny Sweetman's grits are exemplary. Our only quibble is the choice in music. Please, with the Meyerhoff located right across the street, it shouldn't be hard to get recommendations of good classical music to replace the deadly "lite" jazz we heard. But honestly, that is the closest Abacrombie comes to a mistake: Otherwise, it puts most of its competitors to shame.
Aida Bistro, 7185-A Gateway Drive, Columbia, 410-953-0500. Moderate. Aida Bistro may be the ultimate in restaurant relief for parents of young'uns, offering freedom from the prefab nature of those interchangeable "family-friendly" members of the casual dining chain gang. Aida's muted earth tones and subdued lighting are a million years away, style-wise, and so is the menu. Of course there's delicious pasta and savory meatballs for the kiddies, but how about a cold mixed seafood plate to get the parents started? With a lump of lobster on it? Then let's say, oh, grilled hanger steak with Gorgonzola risotto, or pan-seared day boat scallops? While the Little Leaguers wet their whistles with soda or milk, the team captains can treat themselves to a decent wine list, including a lovely selection of half bottles. Don't get us wrong, Aida is a serious, grownup restaurant that caters to couples and large groups alike. It's a great choice for upscale dining in Columbia for anyone. But we're impressed that this family-run place recognizes that appreciation for good food and a glass of wine doesn't end when parenthood begins.
Aldo's Ristorante Italiano, 306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700. Expensive. Any Italian food maven will know immediately that chef/owner Aldo Vitale is from southern Italy the minute you dip into a cup of his pasta fagiole. Rich, earthy, loaded with tomatoey garlic flavor and chock full of beans, this zuppa is as authentic as it gets. Funny how Aldo's can deliver such robust peasant food and then turn around to offer a perfect dish of high-end luxury: tournedos Rossini, grilled prime filet mignon wrapped around fois gras in a black truffle and wild mushroom sauce. That's the beauty of this elegant town house in Little Italy, where excellent seasonal ingredients and a subtle hand reap lovely results, whether you're talking about standards like veal saltimbocca or another regional rarity like zuppa di pesce alla Calabrese, seafood in a rich tomato broth. Vitale's fabled wine cellar shows craftsman-like attention to detail in the same way that the woodwork throughout this lovely place—crafted by Aldo himself—bespeaks a love for beauty.
Antrim 1844, 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 800-858-1844. Expensive. Whenever life gets too hectic, take the drive to Antrim for a sybaritic weekend retreat. The antebellum mansion is beautiful all year round—from the deliriously decked-out Christmas decorations during holiday season to the full garden glory of the surrounding grounds during summer. Rooms are cozy and antique-filled, but even if you've only got time for dinner, you'll feel pampered and treated by Chef Michael Gettier's six-course, prix fixe meal. Hors d'oeuvres are butlered in the quiet, elegant drawing room; then proceed to the Smokehouse, where treats such as a rich smoked salmon cheesecake greet you, followed by a seasonal salad of fresh greens, a bracing intermezzo of berries in champagne, and a hearty, smoky filet mignon with bacon. Gettier's cooking is as precise and season-based as always, and the wine list will give you lots of excellent choices on which to splurge. The dessert tray always has plenty of treats to indulge in. Afterward, to complete this restful, relaxed getaway, retire to the cozy Pickwick Pub for a postprandial nightcap. You'll return to regular life restored and properly pampered.
b, 1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600. Moderate. Lucky, lucky Bolton Hill to have a neighborhood restaurant like this: bright enough to feel casual, with food that's fine enough to impress a date. Check out the chalkboard for nightly specials, as this is where the kitchen really gets creative. On a recent visit, we loved a whole trout, its delicately sweet and moist flesh framed beautifully by a lightly charred heart of Romaine lettuce on one side, and a salad of avocado and black beans on the other. On the other hand, we like the menu's traditional and homey Mediterranean items, like an appetizer of polenta topped with tomatoes and Italian sausage, which could have been a small entrée itself. The young, hip servers are quick and cheerful, and they know the wine list well, happy to point out a new bargain or suggest an interesting pairing. Such a winning combination of elements can make for crowds, especially on the weekend, but people seem to treat the place like a real bistro, coming and going with relative alacrity. Still, it's worth it to linger over b's simple but deadly desserts: Their deconstructed version of bread pudding, while not exactly traditional, is not to be missed.
The Bicycle, 1444 Light Street, 410-234-1900. Expensive. Chef Barry Rumsey's eclectic menu features classic European cooking techniques, but uses the flavors of Asia and Central America to create fare that is satisfying without being heavy. Like a Bianchi racing frame hung with Shimano parts, this blend of continental style and New World flair is beautiful, light, and agile. The Bicycle's peloton of tasty plates includes smoked duck salad that strikes a balance between rich duck meat and tangy dressing, Mongolian barbequed ribs that fall off the bone, and delightful lamb chops that are grilled to order. In the latter two dishes, it's clear that Barry isn't afraid of spice. For us, that is a welcome change of tempo—after all, in a town where people lick the eye-watering Old Bay off their fingers during a crab feed, we should be able to handle some heat. Certainly, there is plenty of mild fare on Bicycle's menu, but if you like a little kick to your food, you'll enjoy taking The Bicycle for a spin.
The Black Olive, 814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141. Very expensive. Hands down, year in and year out, this is still the place we go when we want the absolutely best fish that money can buy. Yes, this convivial, dressed-up Greek tavern is pricey, but you get what you pay for. No one can take a whole Dover sole or branzino and (with just some oil, lemon, and a pass over the wood grill) magically turn it into ambrosia like these guys do. Never has simplicity given such thrills. Take a walk with your waiter to the seafood case and pick your fish, or go for the lovely grilled rack of lamb or beef tenderloin if seafood is not your thing. Fish-lovers can get a double dose by starting with fat grilled calamari oozing with feta and manouri cheese, or massive, golf-ball-sized scallops over baby greens. Proceed to that supernal fish they've grilled for you. And afterward, enjoy a rich cup of Greek coffee with a traditional Greek dessert—say, baklava, or our favorite, the honey-rich homemade yogurt with fresh fruit. Oh, by the way, this place also boasts one of the absolutely best wine lists in town. Pair all of that with gracious service and you can be sure this splurge is worth every penny.
Blue Sea Grill, 614 Water Street, 410-837-7300. Expensive. Steve de Castro's entry in the high-stakes field of local seafood restaurants is a distinctive winner that attracts casual and serious diners. Decked out like a cool blue ocean paradise, all sleek and trendy curves and aqua coloring, Blue Sea is a worthy spot for a sexy date or big-occasion dining. Start at the raw bar up front and slurp some sparkling fresh Blue Points on the half shell, or share an unctuously rich crab and artichoke dip (or, if you're really feeling flush, some white sturgeon caviar). This isn't bar food—it's seduction. A daily roster of fresh catches is served up whole, filleted, or in steaks, but no matter what kind of fish or the cut, they're models of superlative freshness and expert preparation. We're partial to the herb-roasted salmon—this fat fish, often overcooked elsewhere, here is rich and creamy and delicately scented with herbs. More reason, then, to indulge in a ridiculously decadent side of macaroni and cheese studded with massive hunks of lobster. Service here is as finely tuned as you'd expect from a de Castro enterprise, and the wine list is a model of good choices in a range of prices. Save room for the marvelous pineapple upside-down cake gilded with crème Anglais, as sophisticated a version of this homestyle dessert as we've ever seen.
Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles Street, 410-547-8485. Expensive. Jack Elsby and the crew at Brass Elephant have been working on their game, and it shows. Their roasted root vegetable salad features an assortment of tender fall tubers lightly dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Pan-seared crusted pork tenderloin is served perfectly pink in the middle, and the accompanying dried currant gastrique is a pleasant foil to the heady herbed meat. If you're in the mood to treat yourself royally, go for the duo of lamb, a combination of lamb confit and a small rack of ribs. The unsung star of the dish is the dash of creamy polenta lurking under the confit. Desserts are generally good; if you aren't sure, stick with the always-popular crème brûlée. The grand old interior features plenty of aged polished wood, warm lighting, and plush carpets. Like the menu, it isn't bold and it isn't modern, but it's a comfortable and impressive love song to the classical, traditional approach.
The Brewer's Art, 1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-6925. Expensive. We cried when Chef Ravi Narayanan, who brought such flair and sass to the Art's gorgeous dining room, departed last year. But the good news is that new chef John "Tip" Carter is very much up to keeping the verve and excellence intact. The heavily seasonal menu is still stocked with hearty and ambitious offerings—for example, fall brings a deeply earthy venison osso buco, whose richness is tempered by dried cherry and port marmalade and sided with a toothsome garlic-potato hash; pan-roasted tournedos of beef sport ethereal crayfish croquettes and are draped with wilted beet tops. One autumnal night, we swooned over a salad of roasted root vegetables, crisp-tender matchsticks kissed with sweetness and a nap of sparkly citrus vinaigrette, as well as an unusually substantial appetizer of oxtail stew with dumplings. The Art, as always, has one of the most ambitious wine lists in town, in addition to its roster of house-made artisanal beers. And if you're feeling that a round of casual eats is all you're hankering for, an order of the famous rosemary-garlic fries in the lovely upstairs bar is always an option.
Cafe de Paris, 8808 Centre Park Drive, Columbia, 410-997-3904. Expensive. Native Parisian Erik Rochard has given Columbia a little taste of France, a pleasant neighborhood spot for dining on traditional cuisine like garlicky escargots, boeuf bourguinon, and duck confit. For an economical tour through the menu, try the dinner formule. Doing so allows you to, say, start with a vast bowl of plump saffron-scented mussels, move on to duck breast topped with port-poached figs, and end with the marvelous pear-and-peach cake—all for a very reasonable $37. But if price is no object, check out the a la carte chef's special selections, like tender, mild venison loin marinated in blueberries and sided with crunchy potato pancakes and haricots verts. In any case, make use of the excellent rustic-style bread to mop up those fabulous French sauces. Service seems to have improved since our last visit, and the wine list includes some good affordable options. All in all, Cafe de Paris continues to be Columbia's spot for upscale but still any-night-of-the-week French fare.
Cafe Troia, 28 W. Allegheny Avenue, Towson, 410-337-0133. Expensive. The sedate and pretty dining room at Troia is always the place to go when you want an honest, authentic Italian meal made with prime ingredients and Old Country touches. We always love the roster of salads and antipasti that somehow taste greater than the sum of their parts, like the calamari Vesuvio, a tangle of tender calamari in a tomato sauce as rich and deep as the sea, or a pretty plate of mozzarella Caprese that is composed of perfect bufala mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with basil-infused olive oil. Sounds simple, tastes divine. Troia is justly famous for its creamy risotto dishes made for two, and for a very fine version of osso buco made from humanely raised veal. We find ourselves coming back again and again to a humble dish of homemade pappardelle topped with a wild mushroom sauce, which is a mouthful of Tuscany in its autumnal glory. A great wine list larded with Italian (what else?) choices will please oenephiles, and dessert lovers will be pleased with Troia's version of tiramisu. If you love your Italian food on the quiet but spectacularly good side, this is your place.
Capital Grille, 500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064. Very Expensive. What does this upscale steak chain, newly arrived in Baltimore, offer that distinguishes it from others of its ilk? In a word: service. As a bevy of servers deftly attend to your every wish or need, you'll understand by the end of the evening why this rare commodity is such a big deal. A meal here leaves you feeling pampered, important, soothed. Moreover, just as the plush men's-club surroundings will make you feel as if you've drifted back to a time when such things mattered, you'll thrill to the old-fashioned perfection of starters like jumbo shrimp cocktails and luscious steak tartare. The dry-aged steaks here are amazingly tender and flavorful, the seafood is pristine, and desserts—like a fluffy cloud of coconut cake—are worth the splurge. But if, by chance, you weren't happy with some element of the meal, these folks would bend over backward to make things right.
Carlyle Club, 500 W. University Parkway, 410-243-5454. Moderate. White tablecloths, white-jacket service, candlelight, a cozy fireplace in winter and casement windows that open graciously onto a dining patio sparkled with tiny lights in summer—all of this hushed, lovely atmosphere sounds like it would cost a bundle. But the menu, studded with Lebanese dishes, is a bargain and an adventure all at once. A basket of warm, housemade pita and a little dish of olives will temper your hunger as you peruse the list of mezzes—Middle Eastern tapas like stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush, hummus—and entrées that range from charcoal-grilled kebabs to, improbably, the best crab cakes in town. Our favorite pick is the lahm al shahi, tender chunks of lamb in creamy yogurt sauce studded with dates and almonds. The combination of fine food, reasonable prices, and luxurious digs makes this a favorite of the nearby Hopkins Homewood crowd. A good bargain, if limited, selection of wines is a bonus, as is the gracious service.
Chameleon Cafe, 4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376. Moderate. There is no shortage of restaurants in our area that lay claim to being bistros. And yet it may be the unassuming Chameleon Cafe that comes closest, churning out disarmingly honest food from its cozy and newly renovated rowhouse digs. We hope the onion-and-oxtail soup is still on the menu when you read this; it will ruin you for the usual gloppy cheese-topped stuff forever after. Or enjoy the mellow saltiness of a traditional brandade, a salt cod purée served with a side of lemon-caper sauce. Braised veal cheeks, choucroute garni, braised pork shank, escargot, house-made charcuterie . . . the menu is a veritable playground of Continental gastronomic nostalgia that we could happily spend nights on end exploring. Staff is prompt, courteous, and knowledgeable. We'd like to see more bistro staples like Muscadets, Macons, and Languedocs on the wine list, but that's a minor quibble with a collection that has no shortage of good things to drink. Don't forget dessert, either. They're always fresh and delicious, and just the thing to help you get through that glass of Poire William you couldn't resist as a digestif.
Charleston, 1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373. Very expensive. When Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman closed their landmark restaurant last year for a total overhaul of décor and menu, we wondered what Baltimore's premier dynamic restaurant duo was thinking. Well, we're sold. The muted interior has been transformed by rich, jewel-toned tapestry fabrics, walnut floors, and more intimately configured dining spaces. It's like being in an elegant home—except you'll seldom have food this fabulous in a private residence. The format, now, is an adventurous tasting menu, wherein diners choose three-, four-, five-, or six-course meals from a range of over 30 choices divided into sections like "Hot," "Cool," "The Season," "Birds & Game," etc. Sound complicated? Wait until you try to choose between, say, the salmon tartare of jewel-like cubes dotted with caviar and splashed with crème fraîche or the grilled cheese sandwich—oozing Comte cheese between slices of buttery brioche, kissed with truffle shavings. From the superlative foie gras with roasted plums to an astounding cheese course, nothing here we've tried has been less than wonderful. Add to that Tony Foreman's 600-plus-bottle wine list, the deeply knowledgeable service, and these soothingly elegant new surroundings, and it's clear that Charleston is even better than ever.
Christopher Daniel, 106 W. Padonia Road, 410-308-1800. Moderate. Downtown restaurants ought to be worried about Christopher Daniel. In an area awash in chain restaurants and fast food, this young upstart is churning out interesting, thoughtful, well-prepared food without completely hoovering your wallet. Our most recent visit there was on a Tuesday night, and it was immediately clear it won't matter one whit whether we write about them or not; it was nearly full already. Clearly, this restaurant has struck a chord with county residents eager for more sophisticated fare closer to home. Crab cakes here are fresh, high-quality, and filler-free, with just the right spark of fresh parsley. You can have them as an appetizer, a main course, or combine one with a six-ounce steak. A poached pear salad with raspberry vinaigrette carries the vital acidity needed to keep it from being overly sweet. We made quick work of our grilled veal tenderloin, and were also impressed with the salmon. This can sometimes be treated as the real "chicken of the sea," a mild and banal offering for timid diners. Not at Christopher Daniel, where it arrives with a tangily rich Asian barbecue sauce dusted with black sesame, and served on a bed of cabbage and wild mushroom. The accompanying leek-and-potato spring roll is an example of a little innovation transforming what could have been an afterthought into a delightful dollop of starch. Desserts were the only weak spot; we enjoyed the flourless chocolate cake, but the ho-hum frozen mousse and ice cream that came with it were simply caloric distractions. If that and bad espresso are the only things that need fixing, it might not be long before it's the city residents who'll want to hit I-83 for dinner.
Corks, 1026 S. Charles Street, 410-752-3810. Expensive. Maybe chef and owner Jerry Pellegrino has been too occupied with his media appearances, or maybe he still hasn't found the right person to fill the void left by the departure of former chef de cuisine Russell Braitsch two years ago, but whatever the problem is, we're a little concerned about Corks this year. Service seems to have slipped, and the food sometimes seems to be more about appearance than taste. Take an appetizer of spinach two ways: It's a marvel of geometric precision, with its long parallel strips of pistachio cracker and prosciutto underlining the Cabernet-dressed salad on one side, and the decadent creamed spinach on the other. Each individual element is impeccable, but they don't combine into any coherent whole. An entrée of duck, with its confit potato and fig tartlet, is similarly dissonant. But the thing is, even a slipping Corks is better than most other restaurants around town, and enough works—like the primevally appealing rosemary-dressed braised lamb shank—to keep Corks the special-event place it's always been. Plus, the all-American wine list remains as impressive as ever. Pellegrino has pulled this place out of slumps before, and we're confident he'll do it again.
Timothy Dean Bistro, 1717 Eastern Avenue, 410-534-5650. Expensive. After years of working in Washington, D.C., chef Timothy Dean has moved up to Baltimore, and we're happy to have him. His eponymous bistro is a warm, inviting space in which to sample the culinary skills of someone who was trained by Jean Louis Palladin. For the best bang for your buck, order the chef's tasting menu: On our visit, it began with an amuse bouche of a fat, sweet scallop in champagne beurre blanc with watercress; progressed through a bowl of addictive Thai-style mussels; culminated in a tender house-smoked rib-eye in wine sauce; and slew us with a decadent pairing of molten chocolate cake with house-made black-truffle ice cream. A whole troop of servers worked their shoes off to make us feel welcome—and, it must be said, to bump up the check. (People, people, tap water is still a valid option!) Still, fine French food in hospitable, jazzy surroundings is worth the occasional splurge.
Della Notte, 801 Eastern Avenue, 410-837-5500. Moderate. For years, most Baltimore cognoscenti conceded that at Della Notte, the best thing to do was to order something too simple to ruin, and then proceed to pillage the wondrous wine list. We're happy to report that, while the list remains impressive, the kitchen has turned the corner. Chesapeake oysters lightly finished with spinach and crab imperial are a fine way to start your evening. Consider the risotto del giorno, a plate of al dente rice infused with whatever strikes the chef's fancy. We devoured the vitello, a pepper-crusted veal loin finished with a Marsala wine reduction and a mélange of potatoes and wild mushrooms. We're still not sold on the décor that re-creates an Italian piazza; it's a little too Disney for us (although your kids will love it). But we hardly notice once we've settled into the seasonal berry semifreddo and a double espresso.
The Helmand, 806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311. Moderate. The Helmand may well qualify as the worst spot in all of Baltimore in which to conduct an affair. Not because it isn't good for romance: its exoticism, combined with its very reasonable prices, has made it Baltimore's premier first-date locale for years. Nor is it because the food isn't both worthwhile and adventurous: We love the aromatic beef-filled mantwo pastry surrounded by yellow split peas, the sweet-and-sour surprise of kaddo borawni (twice-cooked baby pumpkin with yogurt sauce), and the rich depth of the lamb lawand's tomato sauce, with its side of creamy spinach sabzy. No, it's not the Helmand's quality that makes it unsuitable for clandestine liaisons; it's the fact that pretty much everyone in town has known for years what a treasure this place is. Chances are high that you'll run into at least one friend or acquaintance during your visit. Because of this, the gracious but efficient service tends to keep meals paced at a steady clip. But as long as you aren't planning on lingering long while gazing deep into the eyes of someone with whom you shouldn't be seen publicly, Helmand is still one of the best bets in town.
Iron Bridge Wine Company, 13405 State Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456. Inexpensive. What a find! And it seems, on any given night, that everyone in Columbia has found Iron Bridge. No wonder: This cozy, convivial spot is just the right combination of awesome wine selections—stroll around the wine shop and pick your bottle from the 350-plus in house, or try one (or several) of the 30 they serve by the glass—and great food that goes beyond bar snacks. Best of all, everything comes at eminently reasonable prices. Lovely small plates that go great with wine include a killer "grilled cheese sandwich" that features a round of grilled brie with crispy toasts and raisin chutney; or try the herby pitas with green- and black-olive tapenades. For heartier eaters, there are larger plates, like a tangle of spinach and egg fettucine laced with zucchini cubes and smoked salmon. A duo of fat grilled scallops in Asian sauce was as pretty as it was delicious, and a bruschetta topped with wild mushrooms was, indeed, the perfect thing to coax out all the flavor in a California Pinot. Expect to wait (they don't take reservations), but rest assured, it will be worth it. Plus, you can try out a few glasses while your table is being readied. Unlike most casual eateries, the service here is top-notch, knowledgeable about both food and wine, and unusually anxious to please. No wonder everyone in Columbia is crazy about this sweet, casual wine bar.
Ixia, 518 N. Charles Street, 410-727-1800. Expensive. When Ixia first opened five years ago, it was the wild child of the Baltimore dining scene, with its jolting blue décor and aggressive fusion of unexpected ingredients. Today, the décor is as blue and dramatic as ever, but the menu seems to have grown up, favoring tradition over shock value. And yet the food is hardly boring. Take, for instance, the ravioli-like culurzones filled with butternut squash and dressed with sage butter and two stalks of crisp rapini. The dish is all about simplicity and culinary basics; it's nice to see that Ixia's kitchen now understands that it needs no wasabi infusion to mar its sumptuous perfection. There have been up-and-down reports about Ixia's service, but on our visit it was friendly and attentive, helping to maintain the warm glow begun by a round of the bar's inventive cocktails. (The intriguingly sour "X-Tasy" is worth the embarrassment of ordering it by name.)
Jordan's Steakhouse, 8085 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-461-9776. Very expensive. Like any reputable steakhouse, Jordan's gets its share of business dinners, but we think it's designed for more intimate purposes. With its sultry good looks—persimmon walls, Victorian ornamentation—and plush comfort, Jordan's is a natural for big-deal romantic occasions. Attentive servers and an impressive wine list make dinner feel like a special event. The bulk of the entrées are as meat-and-potatoes as can be—and you certainly can't go wrong with a big ribeye sitting on a field of shoestring potatoes—but the appetizers display some refreshing creativity. The signature Caesar salad, featuring grilled hearts of Romaine and thin planes of Asiago cheese, is both visually and texturally appealing. Seafood isn't an afterthought here (though, sadly, vegetables seem to be), as evidenced by a special of moist and basil-flecked rockfish sitting atop a mound of toothsome jasmine rice. Save room (if you can) for the impressive desserts—the chocolate pâté is deceptively small but potent, while a melted gelato with fresh strawberries and Grand Marnier is sinfully good.
Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar, 195 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-263-4688. Moderate. A back dining room makes this place larger than it appears, but that doesn't stop the lines from forming out the door on weekend nights. What's the attraction? Put simply: fish. Yes, Joss has a full Japanese menu, and the dumplings and udon soups are perfectly fine, but sushi rules here. The selection is large, the cuts are generous, and until the Aquarium starts up a tasty sideline business, you aren't going to find fresher seafood anywhere around. Try the many variations of seaweed salad, topped with everything from lobster to shredded squid. The casual atmosphere, combined with the tightly packed tables, sometimes makes you feel like everyone in the room is attending one big party (and we've definitely witnessed some sailors listing a little too heavily to port on occasion), but the servers maintain a cheerful efficiency in the face of the crush. Wash things down with one of Joss' selection of Japanese beers or sakes, and then scoot out so that the next party waiting in line can be as well-fed as you are.
Joy America Cafe, 800 Key Highway, 410-244-6500. Expensive. Now that the Gjerde brothers have only this one restaurant on which to lavish their energies, Joy America is again a destination restaurant that can be used to impress out-of-town guests. Enjoy unique cocktails—the nontraditional juniper martini will convert even those who normally detest gin. The nouveau Latin cuisine here is as playful and unexpected as the artwork in the American Visionary Art Museum, which houses this place. A "bouillabaisse" involves coconut milk and fiery chilis; pork three ways juxtaposes the melting richness of pork belly with the firm starchiness of pozole kernels. And if you have any love for chocolate whatsoever, you owe yourself the "seven tastes of chocolate" dessert, a spectacular array of mousse and truffle, "bark" and ganache. Combine such pleasures with charming servers and a lovely view of the Inner Harbor, and you're bound to impress those out-of-towners.
Kali's Court, 1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700. Expensive. Boasting one of the prettiest dining rooms in the area, Kali's Court is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. Beautiful mahogany and brickwork greet you, and the ultra-fresh seafood will keep you happy. On our last visit to Kali's, we found heaven in a simple raw oyster plate, featuring a selection of extremely fresh and juicy bivalves. Sleek, cool Malpeques were matched with slightly richer and brinier Harris Bays. Kali's albino anchovy salad is a highbrow break from the ubiquitous Caesar. With seafood this fresh, it's best to opt for simpler preparations—rich sauces just detract from the featured ingredient. Wash it all down with a racy, thrilling Alsatian Riesling, a great all-round match for the night. (When more Rieslings show up on seafood wine lists, we'll know Baltimore has arrived.) Traditional baklava rounded out our decadent visit, and we were thankful we'd parked far enough away to walk a bit and take in the atmosphere of Fells Point at night.
Les Folies Brasserie, 2552 Riva Road, Annapolis, 410-573-0970. Expensive. Don't be put off by the outside of this place, which looks like a stucco offshoot of a strip mall. Inside, the large, pleasant rooms are decorated with French posters and ministered by an experienced waitstaff. Come when you've got a hankering for shellfish, particularly of the raw-bar variety. There's always a list of daily offerings posted in the lobby, which could include anything from a roster of various oysters to sea urchin to periwinkles (yes, very tiny and difficult to extract, but sweet and good). But go beyond the raw bar offerings to sample Les Folies' fine menu of French favorites. A flan de crab homardine is a delicate custard studded with big, snowy lumps of crabmeat and gilded with lobster sauce. A soup de poissons contains loads of those shellfish and regular fish and bathed in a Provençal broth laced with fennel, garlic, and rouille. Either is a fine, light prelude to substantial entrées like delicate escalopes de veau served in a rich, creamy mushroom sauce, or linguine piled with fat scallops, shrimp, mussels, and cream. If you wish to try the lovely soufflés for dessert (Grand Marnier, raspberry, or chocolate), make sure you give the kitchen 30 minutes. The wine list is a delightfully reasonable compendium of French offerings, the perfect compliment to Les Folies' excellent renditions of French classics.
Limoges Bistro, 1200 N. Charles Street, 410-837-9999. Moderate. When Mahmood Karzai reinvented his Tampico Mexican Grill as a Spanish-French bistro, we were initially skeptical. After all, such a drastic change seemed to signal little commitment to any kind of cuisine. But Limoges pulls it off. The place feels more like a bistro than it ever did like a cantina—the saffron walls and uncluttered lines tread the border between rustic charm and chic simplicity. The same can be said of the food. Items like bunuelos de bacalao, fried salt-cod balls with eggplant criolla and a squiggle of spicy piquillo pepper aioli, are basic Basque pub grub, but plated so beautifully that they look like haute cuisine. As befits a true bistro, portions are kept small (and therefore affordable), but you'll hardly leave hungry, not when hearty staples like steak frites offer you tender filet topped with caramelized shallots and a forest of perfectly golden pomme frites. The wine list has many reasonably priced options that fit the food well. Do try to save room for dessert: The two-tone chocolate pâté is sin on a plate, but our real favorite is the delicate, spicy surprise of the poire Limoges, a pear poached in Poire William and filled with cream.
Linwoods, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030. Expensive. Except for the seasonal menu, nothing ever changes very much at Linwoods—the deep red mahogany paneled dining room, the low-key but excellent service, the fine wine list, the carefully prepared food. That's a good thing; the crowds of locals who frequent this elegant New American dining spot wouldn't have it any other way. The clientele keeps coming back because every item on the menu is so reliably excellent. We love to start with something decadent, and what could be more so than the lobster tempura—big hunks of sweet meat covered in a light-as-air batter. A fat and tender slide of grouper is tinged with the delightful scents of honey and lavender; a roasted chicken with lemon is a model of tender juiciness and flavor; a loin and rack of dreamy lamb is crusted with pecans. On the more economical side, the grilled hamburger with shoestring potatoes is always a marvel. And where else will you find a lovely Baltimore special like Pimlico cake (yellow cake layered with custard and chocolate frosting) for dessert?
Louisiana, 1708 Aliceanna Street, 410-327-2610. Expensive. Louisiana's gorgeous setting will put you in mind of a luxurious haunt of the 1890s or a chic boîte in Europe. With patterned carpeting, dark paneling, stately chandeliers, and a dramatic wrought iron staircase, this may well be the best place in town for a romantic, clandestine dinner à deux. The food, too, is romantic and rich, featuring French preparations with distinctly Creole and Southern touches. Start with fat and spicy shrimp atop creamy grits in corn emulsion, or a crab bisque dotted with huge hunks of snowy lump meat. Fish preparations here are extra-special, like a tender grouper fillet atop a silky beurre blanc and accompanied by potato croquette, or a catfish crusted with mustard and crushed pecans and served on a pile of beautifully smoky greens and whipped potatoes. Meat lovers will swoon over the veal tenderloin en croûte, wrapped in foie gras for an extra touch of luxury. Desserts are pure New Orleans—bananas Foster, bread pudding—but you may just want to sidle up to the cozy bar up front and have yourself a nightcap as a Sinatra tune wafts softly through the room.
Martick's Restaurant Francais, 214 W. Mulberry, 410-752-5155. Moderate. While some restaurants strive for the look of a bygone era, Martick's actually is from a bygone era—it hasn't really been updated in at least three decades. And that's fine by us; from the foot-worn tiles to the ancient bar, right down to the rotary phones, Martick's oozes history. The menu is a throwback also, featuring country French food completely devoid of pretension. The pâté maison is hearty and delicious, as is the signature sweet-potato soup. Classic bouillabaisse overflows with fish, and there's always steak or chops to be had. Rustic house-made desserts focus on seasonal fruits and good old-fashioned chocolate. Yes, dining at Martick's can be a funky experience at times—the servers can be almost as irascible as Martick himself (and that's saying something), and the neighborhood makes Martick's buzz-to-enter system a sensible precaution. But with the Downtown's West Side undergoing a renaissance, we can only hope the positive transformation manages to reach Martick's while the old guy is still working.
The Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366. Very expensive. Shall we tell you how to slip into the nicest coma ever? First, get a table near a fireplace—not too difficult in a historic building that sports one in almost every dining room—so you're good and toasty. Next, tell your courteous server what you'd like in the way of wine (no, don't look at the prices, or your calm will be shattered). Then, order yourself a sampler plate of oysters, each of the three preparations more decadent than the last (the Rockefellers would be our favorite). You'll be pleasantly stupefied even before your entrée—may we suggest the rack of venison, which arrives on a plate with bacon-laced mustard greens, a pavé of potato and sweet potato, a sweet swirl of bing cherry demi-glace, and half a roasted acorn squash? Yes, that's a lot going on on one plate, but the Milton folks know what they're doing. (If you must have something simpler, why not give yourself over to the comfort of a fat, flavorful steak and trusty mashed potatoes?) Remember to place your order for the baked-to-order apple cobbler—and, when it comes, don't neglect to pour every last drop of the warm caramel sauce over it and the accompanying ice cream. Are you getting sleepy yet? We expect so. Now have your companion drive you home, and we expect the coma will hit before you even get back on the highway.
O'Learys, 310 Third Street, Annapolis, 410-263-0884. Expensive. A peerless fine-dining experience with an emphasis on seafood: That sums up O'Learys. This Annapolis stalwart continues to impress us with gracious service, prime ingredients, an experienced kitchen, and a satisfying wine list. You won't go wrong with anything on the menu, and there is a constantly shifting array of fresh fish and prime cuts available. We're usually tempted by O'Learys' daily specials, but on our most recent visit we delved into their zuppa di pesce. This is the restaurant's take on bouillabaisse, and a finer example we have never encountered in the area. We were truly impressed by the microcosm of seafood in our bowl—mussels, squid, fish, shrimp, even a lobster tail—all bathed in a tangy, velvety, tomato-based broth laced with saffron. The O'Learys atmosphere is subdued and inviting, elegant enough for special occasions and business gatherings without alienating those who subscribe to the Annapolitan leisure-lifestyle dress code.
Pazo, 1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296. Moderate. Reservations are strongly suggested at this latest endeavor of Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf—a year after opening, the heat still isn't off this upscale tapas lounge. Small wonder, when Pazo gives Baltimore something it lacked: a dramatic, see-and-be-seen venue for the Prada set. Indeed, we suspect many of Pazo's patrons are too busy enjoying the vast, Tuscan-inflected space, the DJ-spun club tunes, and each other's clingy black outfits to notice how good the food is. Take our advice and ignore your server's recommendation of three to five plates per person; two to three is more realistic, given the hearty, peasant-inspired food. Even so, it's hard to resist the temptation to order just one more dish, whether it be the sparkling slide of fresh anchovies, or the lemon-laced smokiness of grilled octopus salad, or the simple sweet warmth of roasted almonds. For those on a budget, the $16 bottles of house red and white are a bargain. Inevitably, given the free-form nature of small-plates meals, service occasionally seems to lose its way, but never enough to mar the overall experience. With such a winning combination, we expect those crowds to keep Pazo packed for years to come.
Peter's Inn, 504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313. Moderate. Owners Bud and Karin Tiffany have spruced up their little Fells Point tavern lately, adding tablecloths and a credit-card machine and banishing smoking. But there's still enough idiosyncrasy here to keep Peter's an "only in Baltimore" sort of treasure: the chalkboard menu that changes weekly, the hodgepodge of tables and chairs squished into the little rowhouse tavern, the servers who often seem to be recruited from Peter's own barstools, the picture of Johnny Cash giving customers the bird on one wall. The food is just as indicative of a strong personality with definite opinions. Flavors are bold—like the pungent punch of the pesto garlic bread that comes with each entrée—and butter is embraced, as it is by the creamy mashed potatoes that accompany each massive, beefy steak. Not that everything is meat-and-potatoes here: Think scallops in a blood-orange beurre blanc, paired with ham-laden black lentils and sautéed leeks. Considering the heft and size of her entrées, it's unsurprising that Karin Tiffany frequently skips offering dessert, but when she makes one, it's exceptional and large enough to share.
Petit Louis Bistro, 4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393. Expensive. Petit Louis is the neighborhood restaurant of our dreams: fabulous wine list, great French bistro food, lively crowds, top-notch service. We always like to start with something rich, like the salad of frisée laced with lardons and bleu cheese and topped with a poached egg, or the estimable terrine de foie gras with toast points. The duck-leg confit is always satisfying, but traditionalists can opt for the fine version of steak frites, the crispy fries popping out from their paper cone. If a lighter meal is more your style, a simple but perfect omelette or croque monsieur may be just the thing. Be sure, though, to save room for the sinful, chocolatey pot de crème or the trio of housemade sorbets. Topped off with a glass of Beaumes de Venise Muscat, this is an excellent way to end an evening of neighborhood warmth with bon vivant.
The Prime Rib, 1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804. Very expensive. When a restaurant is described as "old school," it all too often is a euphemism for "mediocre and boring." So when we need to be reminded of what "old school" really is and feel deserving of a real treat, we head to the Prime Rib. Atmosphere at The Bone (as it is sometimes known) is almost dinner club, with frosted glass accents and cushy leather chairs. Everything is suave: subdued lighting, waiters in tuxedoes, jazz piano duo that seems like it's waiting for either Frank Sinatra or James Bond to show up and request a tune. Big cuts of meat rule the menu, but the Prime Rib is also known for serving up one of the best filler-free crab crakes in town. We love the fact that potentially staid selections like potato skins and bread pudding are done so well, so traditionally, that they serve as a reminder of what fine dining used to be. So if you're in the mood for a steakhouse, but not for the modern corporate iteration thereof, you owe it to yourself to roll out to The Bone.
Rooster Cafe, 6590 Old Waterloo Road, Elkridge, 443-755-0600. Moderate. Chef Mark Schek has an impressive history that includes stints at great restaurants in D.C., New England, and Europe. He has returned to his Maryland roots to open this unassuming restaurant in Elkridge. The small number of seats are invitingly swaddled in light Provençal décor, and guarantee that Chef Mark is going to give your order his full attention. He insists on fresh local ingredients, and we were impressed not by the sweep of the menu, but the lack thereof—five appetizer choices, six main courses, and five desserts. That's three courses for a prix fixe of $36. Considering the quality of the food here, it is a bargain. The menu changes daily, depending on what Schek has found at the market, so rely more on your mood than on any specific recommendation from us. Flavors tend to be subtle rather than showy, letting the high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. We find the food to be a bit under-salted for our tastes, but mention it only for the want of a salt cellar at table, not for any changes to be made in the kitchen. Our only real disappointment was the wine list, an inventory of factory-sized wineries that have nothing in common with the selectivity, delicacy, and intimacy of Rooster Café's cuisine. The Rooster Café has plenty to crow about already though, and we think it's only going to get better in 2006—in fact, look for a lot of change here, as Schek and his wife just bought out their other partner in the restaurant and are planning several improvements.
Roy's, 720B Aliceanna Street, 410-659-0099. Expensive. Roy's Hawaiian fusion cuisine finds the perfect setting in this lush and lovely dining spot, with its mango-colored walls and soft lighting. Although we were saddened to find that the great list of sakes had been eliminated from an otherwise stellar wine list, a pineapple martini might do just as well for an aperitif. Among the appetizers, we love the yellowfin ahi poketini, prime sushi-grade tuna dabbed with wasabi aioli, avocado, and tobiko caviar, or the sweet and tender baby-back Szechuan style ribs. For entrées, we're partial to the fish selections, where lovely treats like butterfish (as creamy as it sounds) is counterpointed by a sizzling soy vinaigrette that's delicate enough not to overpower the seafood. Likewise, a roasted macadamia-crusted mahi mahi is gently gilded with lobster cream sauce—this must be the height of Hawaiian cuisine. Service is very polished as befits an upscale chain, and you should definitely tell your server midway through your meal that you want the melting hot chocolate soufflé (it takes 20 minutes to prepare). Worth every calorie. Now, if they would just bring back that great selection of sakes. . . .
Ruth's Chris Steak House, multiple locations including Pier 5 at Inner Harbor, 711 Eastern Avenue, 410-230-0033. Very expensive. The new outpost of this high-end steakhouse chain (formerly Eurasian Harbor) bears all the hallmarks of its companions around town, all owned by restaurateur extraordinaire Steve de Castro. The steaks, of course, are supreme, topped with a pat of sizzling butter after being grilled to perfection. The surroundings are clubby and comfortable—white tablecloths and lively reds that make this the perfect place for casual relaxing or big-occasion feasts. Steaks aren't the only story here. From a creamily luscious lobster bisque to massive mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat and Romano cheese, appetizers offer a wide array of carefully prepared treats. Similarly, a delicately poached Norwegian salmon filet offers the same thrill as the full-bodied New York strip steak. Pair either with a knockout side dish, like the sinfully rich mashed potatoes or a pile of tender, cheese-topped broccoli au gratin. Everything is exactly what you come to a steakhouse for—rich, decadent, big food. Service, too, is quiet and efficient, helping you to enjoy your sybaritic splurge in total comfort. Oh, and while we're talking decadence, save room for the caramelized banana cream pie. It is, indeed, to die for.
Sotto Sopra, 405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534. Expensive. Owner and Executive Chef Riccardo Bosio always finds a way to keep things interesting at this sophisticated upscale Italian restaurant. A roster of rotating chefs directly from Italy makes the menu an ever-changing delight of Northern Italian favorites, like a tangle of stewed calamari and rapini in a light sauce of tomatoes, white wine, and capers, or the suave vitello tonnato—thin slices of cold veal in tuna-anchovy sauce. Nothing could be more decadent than the foie-gras-stuffed gnocchi with parmesan cream and truffles, or lighter than a tomato-and-basil wrapped branzino napped with champagne sauce and fried leeks. Scarf up this inventive fare in Sotto's candlelit wood-soaked atmosphere, and do find a sexy Italian wine among the excellent offerings. Grand Marnier cheesecake may not be a traditional Italian dessert, but you'll love it nonetheless.
Tapas Teatro, 1711 N. Charles Street, 410-332-0110. Moderate. Eating at Tapas Teatro can be a little challenging—not because of the food, but because the combination of built-in crowds from the neighboring Charles Theatre and a no-reservations policy can make for a long wait for a table. Once seated, however, you're in for a treat. Start off with a pitcher of sangria as you debate the relative merits of chorizo-studded risotto cakes and oven-roasted eggplant, or Serrano ham and grilled lamb chops with rhubarb sauce. The best part is that with these small plates, you can try them all. Perennial favorites for us include the aforementioned lamb chops and the sautéed spinach dotted with pine nuts and raisins, but make sure to check out the special sheet for interesting items; on a recent visit, we adored the richness of a duck confit on flatbread with a white-bean purée. The servers flit about like black-clad bees, busily doing their best to get customers in and out before the next screening. But food like this deserves to be savored in leisurely courses; try coming early on a weeknight, when the crowds are thinner, to enjoy a more slowly paced meal.
Tersiguel's, 8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004. Very expensive. Every year, we find ourselves in love all over again with this place. The French Country cuisine never changes much—but it never gets old, either, not with such delicious attention to detail paid to even the humblest dishes, like the house-made sausage served with warm, tangy potato salad. The Tersiguels have made their restaurant's reputation through using the best possible ingredients—they even grow some of them themselves—in traditional preparations. A succulent rack of lamb is arranged like a spiral over spooned polenta and mixed winter vegetables, every bite enriched by an ambrosial garlic jus. Seafood is also treated respectfully (though the "seafood sampler for two" is really more of a four-person affair), as witnessed in a nightly special that featured a massive, moist, fresh-from-the-boat hunk of rockfish topped with chanterelles and paired with delicate creamed spinach that nestled in a fresh artichoke heart. Speaking of pairing, our most recent visit did leave us with one concern: Our server was not as knowledgeable about wine, nor as skilled in service, as we're accustomed to seeing at this place. We can only imagine she was new to the staff, as all our former visits have featured some of the finest service available. Hence, the love.
Thai Landing, 1207 N. Charles Street, 410-727-1234. Inexpensive. Thai cuisine thrills us because its flavors are so startlingly fresh; Thai Landing thrills us because not only is the food great, but the bill is startlingly small. Once the omnipresent and always happy headwaiter, Charlie, shows you to your table, settle into a menu brimming with delights. Crispy minced catfish and spicy sautéed squid are but two of our favorites, along with classics like galanga soup and beef satay. Entrées range from tame but delicious Pad Thai to fiery curries. Take the Landing's spice-rating system seriously; we find two stars deliver plenty of heat without blowing us up. Three-star dishes are better left to those who really have a passion for peppers. If you get into trouble, consider sucking down several glasses of their flame-retardant sweet iced tea. Dessert choices are simple: mango sticky rice or Thai rice pudding. We love them both; if mangoes are out of season, Thai Landing's staff may offer just the pudding, which is fine with us.
Trattoria Alberto, 1660 Crane Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922. Expensive. There are two questions we generally get asked about Trattoria Alberto. The first is, "Is it really in a strip mall in Glen Burnie?" The answer is yes. But trust us, once you step inside this pretty restaurant, with its white tablecloths and blonde wood accents, the less-than-glamorous location recedes into the background. The second question is, "Is it worth the money?" That one's a bit trickier. Indeed, Trattoria is notoriously pricey (comparable, at least, to its upscale counterparts in Little Italy), especially if you let yourself be seduced by the delectable-sounding nightly specials. But if you value sublime Northern Italian food—a decadent smoked beef appetizer, a silky penne alla vodka studded with fresh crabmeat, a gorgeous sautéed loin of veal cooked simply with crushed pepper and sage, or a tender rare tuna steak topped with Dijon mustard sauce—plus, a low-key live pianist who cheerfully accommodates all requests, a terrific wine list with a sommelier on hand to guide you through your options, and first-rate service . . . well then, we'd say yes, it is more than worth the money.
Vespa, 1117 S. Charles Street, 410-385-0355. Moderate. Vespa owner Steve Ward continues to refine and improve upon this sleek Italian bistro's excellent wine list, just as chef Michael Russell continues to uphold the quality of the menu. We love Vespa's sophisticated but casual dining room, with its low lighting, hip crowd, and beautiful, black-clad servers. Even more, we love the way you can make a light meal out of numerous small-plate offerings—a tender grilled octopus salad, a lush combo of fried eggplant and goat cheese, a superb antipasto plate, a thin-crust pizza—or make it a night of culinary adventure with the fabulous entrées. An amazing steak tenderloin with risotto and wild mushrooms in red wine sauce, or succulently crisp and juicy game hens, are prime examples of how simple dishes are transformed into something special by expert preparation. But do sample (or split) a plate of any of the pastas, like the shells tossed with shrimp in tomato-cream sauce. (Also, do note that the menu changes frequently, so these exact items may be gone by the time you visit.) Mmmm. Dessert? Best chocolate crème brulee we've ever tasted. Vespa continues to thrill with its blend of simplicity and sophistication.
Wild Orchid Cafe, 909 Bay Ridge Avenue, Annapolis, 410-268-8009. Expensive. Annapolis is chock full of delicious places to eat these days, and we're relieved that it remains pretty free of big-franchise dominators. Most visitors focus on what's going on near the City Dock, but venturing a bit further afield can yield very good results. The Wild Orchid is one such gem, a restored bungalow tucked away in a residential area on Bay Ridge Avenue. Its light, easygoing interior refreshes, with simply dressed windows and uncluttered walls. You may choose to dine off the regular menu, order the daily prix fixe, or delve into their occasional holiday menus. On one recent visit, we feasted on their signature butternut squash soup, venison scallopini with house-made pumpkin spaetzle, and braised veal shanks. We enjoyed the shanks particularly, as they were accompanied by a heady, earthy dollop of truffle risotto. We appreciate the wine list that, while not fancy or very adventurous, nonetheless offers plenty of solid choices. We also have to give Wild Orchid kudos for serving up several interesting vegetarian offerings. Desserts aren't entirely their strong suit, but we bet you'll be full enough by then not to mind.
The Wine Market, 921 E. Fort Avenue #133, 410-244-6166. Moderate. What defines a legitimate dining scene? Is it the big-ticket, fine-dining restaurants a local might visit once a year? Or is it the smaller, casual places that still offer inventive, delicious food that can be enjoyed any night of the week? If it's the latter, then the Wine Market is definite proof of Baltimore's continuing evolution into a culinary cosmopolis. This new wine shop and chic cafe is worth traveling to, no matter what neighborhood you're from. The seasonal menu stays mostly in the territory of New American and traditional Mediterranean, and that's where it works best. A simple cheese plate, a homey lamb ragout, a decadent plate of bacon-wrapped filet mignon with spinach and potato gnocchi—these are dishes that make the Wine Market worth a drive. (We've found that its forays into Asian fusion are less successful.) And what you spend on gas, you'll save on wine, as you can order any bottle in the wine shop and pay retail, plus a small corkage fee—or, for added fun, create a "flight" of three three-ounce glasses of similar wines.
Yin Yankee Cafe, 105 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-268-8703. Moderate. Asian Fusion: the very mention of it can induce seizures. It was in, then it was out, then it was back in again, and those who claimed to have a handle on it sometimes popped with energy, but more often melted down. Yin Yankee succeeds in this tricky arena by emphasizing the "Asian" over the "Fusion" aspect, and by offering up glisteningly fresh seafood, from sushi to seared salmon. Gorge yourself on the a la carte sushi menu, or just have a little maki to start off your evening. We were wowed by the tuna and salmon carpaccio, finished with a light wasabi cream. Delve into the interesting reserve wine list while the kitchen gets your main courses ready; we suggest having a go at the Jade Tuna, lightly battered and cooked to order. We especially love the accompanying wasabi potatoes. You may think you've seen these before, but this was our first encounter with them that necessitated a hanky—maybe it was the nuclear-powered smack in the schnoz, or maybe we wept for their fluffy texture and intense flavor. Either way, we love them. The casual, gonzo Tokyo atmosphere allows for all manner of attire, so don't resist a last-minute craving, no matter how you're dressed. Yin Yankee's food is fresh, focused, and truly different, making for fusion that won't leave you cold.