Every year, we create a list of some 70 restaurants and divide it between our critics—Senior Editor Hannah Feldman, dining critic Bianca Sienra, and wine critic John Farlow—who set out to dine at every single one of them (anonymously, of course). And every year, we sit down together at the end and decide which places we loved, which we liked, and which we thought needed some work. This year marks the first time that the process has produced a list of less than 50 restaurants.
At first, we were puzzled, because, if anything, Baltimore's dining scene is stronger and more vibrant than ever. But then we realized that this unexpected result boiled down to one of the four criteria we use to pick our favorite restaurants—namely, value. (Food, service, and ambiance are the other three.) We'd noticed that menu prices had risen dramatically in the last few years, buoyed no doubt by the same forces that have led to the multiplication of luxury apartment buildings across the city. Dinners that cost $100 per person were becoming the norm in fine-dining establishments. That would be acceptable, if the quality had risen as well. But in many cases, we found that wasn't the case; in fact, quality often seemed to have dropped as prices were rising. Could we include a place we knew had been better two years previously, back when it charged $10 less per entrée? We decided we couldn't. And as a result, we were shocked to find some longtime favorites (The Milton Inn? Hampton's? How is this possible?) not on the list.
At the same time, new restaurateurs have upped the level of competition considerably. You can't serve lukewarm mashed potatoes and overdone steak when smart young chefs like Jason Ambrose at Salt are turning out duck-fat French fries to die for and sleek Annapolis newcomers like Metropolitan are making art with beet paint. And some older restaurants have stepped up their game—a few stalwarts who haven't been on this list for years have made reappearances. We predict that this renewed energy in the local dining scene will make this list less predictable in years to come, as restaurants struggle to keep up with a level of cooking that continues to rise.
So this list may surprise you. It definitely surprised us.
Abacrombie Fine Foods, 58 W. Biddle Street, 410-244-7227. Expensive. Yes, we've heard the rumors as well, and we're not pleased: It's true that the Sweetmans considered selling Abacrombie, and while that deal fell through, they may do so again. Please, fellow foodies, don't let it happen—we love this place too much. Refinement and elegance are always on display in the ever-changing menu. Chef Sonny Sweetman has a clever way with accents, like the fennel cream and lemon jam that grace a lovely piece of Scottish salmon, or the bittersweet grace note of kumquats in the coconut-milk broth that accents a luscious line of dry-pack scallops. In fact, we've been known to pick our main course according to its accompaniments: We know the oven roasted pork tenderloin will melt in the mouth, and the pan-seared chicken will be moist and flavorful. But what pushes us toward the pork is the prospect of Sweetman's rosemary grits. Then again, that chicken is paired with those killer, buttery mashed potatoes and roasted pumpkin. Diners who want to spare themselves the fine agony of choosing can order the chef's menu, which, whether matched with selections from the excellent wine list or not, is a fabulous bargain. And it will spare you the further problem of deciding between, say, a chocolate bread pudding gilded with cardamom crème anglaise or a Brazilian butternut flan for dessert. Please, go see for yourself. We need to keep this place in business.
Aida Bistro & Wine Bar, 7185-A Gateway Drive, Columbia, 410-953-0500. Moderate.The Aida folks added the "wine bar" to their moniker this year, as well as a small-plates menu to be enjoyed at the bar. But we'll still love them best as a sweet, friendly spot for quality Italian-American cuisine. You can stick with the basics here and not be disappointed—Aida has some of the best fried calamari anywhere in the greater Baltimore region, and their homemade pasta and fresh marinara put what's served in many Little Italy landmarks to shame. But you'll be rewarded if you venture further into the menu. One visit, we loved a seasonal special of tender venison paired with just-crisp asparagus and creamy mashed potatoes. The ochres and deep reds of the simple décor manage to be both sophisticated and cozy, and servers are attentive and well-versed in the thoughtfully created wine list. Columbia is lucky to have such a charming, unpretentious gem.
Aldo's Ristorante Italiano, 306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700. Expensive. Aldo's remains one of Little Italy's most idiosyncratic restaurants. Unlike most of its colleagues, it almost entirely eschews the lasagna-and-red-sauce trope—and when it does begrudgingly offer such standards, you can tell the kitchen's heart isn't in it. No, this is a place more interested in dishes like Shrimp St. Andrea, served on a bed of lobster-saffron mashed potatoes, or in Tuscan-style grilled veal chops paired with wild mushrooms and a polenta galetti. The wine list is massive and impressive, bordering on intimidating; thankfully, the gracious servers are able to guide diners through it expertly. We just wish they wouldn't leave that wine list on the table for ages before allowing you a glimpse at the menu—some of us would prefer to order wine after figuring out what we want to eat! But owner Aldo Vitale has heard us gripe about this before—it's just another of his restaurant's idiosyncrasies, without which, we suppose, it would be less special than it is.
Antrim 1844, 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 800-858-1844. Expensive. An evening spent in Antrim's cozy country digs is worth the long drive to reach this historic inn. Formal seatings and the six-course, prix fixe menu foster a sense of occasion; get there early to enjoy a drink in the charming bar (why yes, there's a fireplace). Service is professional and well-informed, doing an excellent job of explaining chef Michael Gettier's classically French creations. We flipped for frogs' legs on our most recent visit; they were buoyed in a light cream sauce and accompanied by a delicious dollop of salmon mousse. We were also happy to find braised rabbit on offer, rounding out our dinner of critters that are rare indeed on American menus. Antrim boasts a very deep and diverse wine list, and there are some interesting values if one knows what to look for. All in all, a dinner at Antrim is a real occasion; and, one day when we have time, we've promised ourselves we'll book a room in the inn so that we can properly relax after our feast.
b, 1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600. Moderate. This lively little bistro, situated on a leafy residential corner in Bolton Hill, bubbles with neighborhood regulars every night of the week. No wonder—b features bargain dining that's fresh and inventive enough to satisfy your most demanding foodie friends, and pairs it with a compelling wine list studded with great deals. Mostly Mediterranean, the menu shines with rustic gems, like a panzanella salad featuring crunchy Italian bread tossed with heady basil, tomato, and capers, or an appetizer of tender baby octopus bathed in excellent tomato sauce and bedded on creamy warm polenta. But there's plenty of sophisticated invention to tweak tradition—say, a risotto-of-the-day chalkboard special composed of blackened waluu, applewood bacon, and cheddar cheese; or a light but lush osso buco that subs chicken for veal. Pasta dishes are pure comfort food with a contemporary twist: Don't miss the sachettes of pasta stuffed with pear and gorgonzola and topped with toasted walnut crème sauce. Servers are knowledgeable and efficient, in keeping with the bright, casual digs, where it's possible to grab a designer pizza or panini on the fly, or settle in for serious food. There are fine house-made ice creams to be had for dessert, among other delectable selections, but frankly, we never quite make it past the killer bread pudding. Like b, it's irresistible.
The Bicycle, 1444 Light Street, 410-234-1900. Expensive. You never know where in the world you'll wind up when you order a meal at The Bicycle. You could be in Bali, savoring the tangy peanut dressing that holds together its well-loved tuna tartare appetizer. Or you could find yourself in the Yucatan, spooning up a roasted tomatillo soup. You might indulge in an oh-so-French beurre blanc on your lobster ravioli—or in an all-American dish like steak and potatoes, albeit with a demiglace flavored with roasted shallots and Port wine. All this globe-trotting could be chaotic, but somehow The Bicycle manages to pull everything into a unified whole. New owner Nicholas Batey has kept the menu essentially the same as it was under Barry and Deborah Rumsey; even the "18 for $18" wine options are still available. In the warmer months, we like to sit outside in the trellised patio; inside, the vibrant colors feel sharp and modern—and so do we, when we come here to dine.
The Black Olive, 814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141. Very expensive. This Fells Point elder continues to prove the point that the absolute best ingredients, prepared simply, are often the most delicious. From starters like fried baby anchovies or marinated octopus salad to entrées like super-fresh John Dory and Dover sole, The Black Olive's unadorned take on seafood is our favorite—just grill it, drizzle it with some seasoned olive oil, and call it good. And there is a plethora of fish-o-philic wine from all over the world available for one to wash it all down, including an extensive selection of serious Greek wines. The casual Mediterranean atmosphere feels at once authentic and welcoming, and we always enjoy the walk to the cold case to pick our fish. We suggest sticking with tradition for dessert—The Black Olive does a great baklava. And if you went a little too crazy with that wine list, their super-strong Greek coffee is an eye-opening option for anyone who might have over-indulged.
The Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles Street, 410-547-8485. Moderate. This grand old dame, a longtime staple of the Baltimore restaurant scene, has seen a notable culinary renaissance in the kitchen over the past two years. Many moons ago, this was the place to come for frankly heavy—and pricey—classic Continental cuisine. Today, the tab is no longer likely to be stratospheric, and the menu features seasonal New American dishes—interesting enough to keep diners intrigued without alienating customers who just want good, substantial food. There's lots of attention to detail here. One autumn evening, we were happy to see the sweet slice of winter squash beneath a lovely first course of rabbit in cider sauce, and equally pleased to see the pristine white anchovies and crispy Parmesan frico atop our Caesar salad. Entrées were attuned to autumnal flavors—a robust pork osso bucco atop rich porcini risotto, a hearty but meltingly mild hunk of monkfish accented by black-eyed peas and pine nuts. After such bounty, it was impossible to consider dessert, but our waitress solved our craving for something sweet-but-small by bringing luxurious homemade chocolate champagne truffles to the table. By the way, service here has improved markedly; it's formal but friendly, in keeping with the stately surroundings. Our only suggestion? Consider replacing the worn carpeting. The Brass Elephant's glory is its 19th-century townhouse interior: crystal chandeliers, elaborately carved wood, brass fittings, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A slight revamp would let those trappings shine as brightly as the food.
The Brewer's Art, 1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-6925. Expensive. You can feel the buzz as soon as you walk into this ever-popular Mt. Vernon watering-hole-cum-New-American restaurant, where the spacious grandeur of its shabby-chic townhouse trappings consistently draws crowds of see-and-be-seen sophistos. Beneath the enormous brass chandelier in the bar up front, pretty young twenty- and thirtysomethings discreetly scope each other out as they sip the signature house microbrews and trendy cocktails, while back in the clubby, candlelit dining rooms, groups of friends gather to partake of John "Tip" Carter's menu of substantial, seasonal cuisine and a wine list so special, it's won awards (from us, among others). In this convivial atmosphere, you can easily share some of the generous appetizers on offer and call it a meal—maybe a hearty dish of braised pork belly on white cornbread laced with sage-corn cream, or the bourride of clams, black bass, and shrimp in a rich broth of white wine spiked with orange peel and saffron. Paired with a salad of, say, bitter greens and blue-cheese-filled poached pear, they make for fine dining. But food fans won't want to bypass serious entrées like an elegant plate of grilled venison chops in dried-cherry-and-cracked-pepper demi-glace or a beggar's purse of candied root vegetables—sided with an adorable little pumpkin tartlet—that even non-vegetarians will go for. This is comfort food for cool people.
The Capital Grille, 500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064. Very expensive. It's a man's world here, with sports tickers running in the bar, big portions on the plate, and nary a soft hue or feminine touch to be found. Brooding tones, game trophies, and Gotham lighting fixtures greet you upon arrival—along with the strong feeling that there is a lot of business being conducted around you. Our visits have revealed the clientele to be overwhelmingly corporate, but that doesn't mean the food isn't good. Our steaks always arrive top-quality and cooked to order, and we appreciate the mixed platter of wild mushrooms as a low-fat alternative to the usual steakhouse sides. It is also a refreshing change of pace to find a wine director on hand to help, should you become mired in the choices, which range from an interesting Vouvray by the glass to expensive boutique California reds. There's even high-quality Canadian ice wine on offer, a sure sign that The Capital Grille is gunning for a sophisticated diner that knows his (or her) way around the fine-dining scene.
Carlyle Club, 500 W. University Parkway, 410-243-5454. Moderate. Why is this place not more popular? We can't understand it. The setting is lovely—a warm, long room graced with plenty of windows for the summer and a fireplace for the winter, plus a chic little bar area for light-fare and gossip. The service is courteous and attentive. The prices are quite affordable—no entrée goes above the $20 mark, and many are below $15—and the food is delicious. Make a meal of the page-and-a-half list of appetizers on this Lebanese menu, from lemony hummus to the spiky allure of steamed artichokes with tahini dipping sauce. Or try one of the entrées. Grilled seabass in pomegranate sauce is sweetly exotic, the white flesh of the fish cooked only until moist and flaky and not a whit beyond that. Meanwhile, the lahm al shahi, lamb with dates and almonds in a yogurt sauce, is creamy decadence in every bite, the tender lamb morsels practically melting off the fork. Brothers Binda and Keir Singh, who also own the nearby Ambassador Dining Room and Spice Company, have a lot of family from Lebanon, and maybe this is why the Carlyle Club feels like the most genuine and enjoyable of all their enterprises. And yet it is consistently the least visited of the three. We can't understand it, but we hope you give the place a try yourself to puzzle out the answer.
Chameleon Cafe, 4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376. Moderate. The digs may be unpretentious and the prices eminently reasonable at this charming little bistro, but make no mistake: The folks at Chameleon take food very, very seriously. From the talent in the kitchen to the servers out on the floor, it's apparent that these guys are committed to producing a stellar dining experience for their customers. Even the warmth of the restaurant's blood-orange walls seems designed to make you salivate in anticipation of the repast to come. Waitstaff will happily walk you through the ingredients and preparation for any dish on the seasonal, New American menu, whether it's the particulars of, say, the garlic sausage in a housemade collection of charcuterie, or the provenance of the bird in a succulent roasted squab with chestnut-wild-rice stuffing. They'll gladly steer you toward the choicest items on the menu if you ask, for which you'll be grateful when it comes time to choose between that squab and a braised duck leg in tawny port with dried Bing cherries, cracklings, and risotto. And they're similarly fluent in advising you on the intelligent wine list, as well as the spectacular housemade desserts and ice creams. All this adds up to a place that is rightly becoming a haven for gastronomes—serious, and seriously fun.
Charleston, 1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373. Very expensive. We admire not only chef Cindy Wolf's individual talents, but the collective focus and dedication demonstrated by everyone who works at this restaurant. First there is the food: Burgundian snails poached in red wine; grilled scallops finished with a bacon and pine-nut sauce and garnished with sweet-potato purée; heady chunks of lobster ringed by grilled local peaches; even a humble pork shoulder is given a royal makeover with butterbean risotto and tomato-butter sauce. Tony Foreman's floor staff provides impeccable timing, telepathic communication, and supreme attention to detail. The wine list continues to be a benchmark for the area. And the deep burgundy-and-bronze tones of the space—a late 2005 renovation is no longer new to us, but still impresses—shows the dedication Wolf and Foreman have to keeping their flagship restaurant thefine dining destination in Baltimore.
Christopher Daniel, 106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-308-1800. Expensive. Christopher Daniel could be really cool: It could have ultramarine walls, and freaky light fixtures, and art school servers, and it could be somewhere in the heart of downtown. The food could be made into tiny architectural wonders served on really big plates. Christopher Daniel could be all these things, because the food is good enough to handle such pretension. But instead, it chooses to be a calm, staid oasis in the strip-mall jungle of Timonium—a fine, friendly destination for Baltimore County folks, who deserve a little good food close to home. Not that the menu is boring—unless you've been eating a lot more lobster cappuccino risotto than we have been. Even steak, the restaurant's signature dish, comes with a range of sauce options, from a port wine reduction to one made of "exotic mushrooms." The potatoes au gratin make a sinfully satisfying accompaniment. Sometimes the menu descriptions can get a little carried away—we're pretty sure the "wild mushrooms" in an entrée of seared scallops were just crimini and portabella—but you can always trust that what appears on your plate will be undeniably delicious. The wine list mostly hovers between $25 and $40; servers are polite and efficient and devoid of noticeable tattoos . . . and attitude. And that's totally cool with us.
Corks, 1026 S. Charles Street, 410-752-3810. Expensive. Once again, we're a little perplexed by Corks. We still love owner Jerry Pellegrino's brazenly American menu and wine list, both of which always delight and intrigue. And he deserves credit for scouting obvious kitchen talent, from Mark Schek to Christian de Lutis, to realize his ideas from night to night—if only those guys stuck around. Our most recent visit—which, it turned out, was during one of the last weeks of de Lutis's tenure before he left for The Wine Market—found us reveling in a classic BLT reconstructed with sweetbreads, applewood bacon, as well as the best foie gras course we've encountered in ages. The Muscovy duck breast glazed in Clear Creek cherry liqueur was fantastic, and we knew for sure we were in love when our roasted pork loin arrived with a hearty slab of pork belly (you know, just in case we weren't already, pardon the pun, pigging out). And we found plenty to like in the wine list that Chris Coker continues lovingly to maintain. But we couldn't help noticing that the list is a bit thinner than before, and the carpets are too. We'll continue to recommend heartily Corks, and put our faith in Pellegrino to man the stoves until he finds another wunderkind to take over.
Della Notte, 801 Eastern Avenue, 410-837-5500. Expensive. Once upon a time, we would have said that the voluminous and impressive list of Italian wines (more than 1,400 selections!) was the star attraction at Ted Julio's Little Italy ristorante. But in the past several years, Della Notte has gradually built an equally impressive collection of upscale dishes, trading in standard Italian-American fare like baked lasagna and veal Marsala for more ambitious cuisine that definitely gets our attention. Yes, you can still get a simple plate of, say, ziti pasta, but it will be tossed with crushed plum tomatoes simmered in white wine, fresh herbs, and fresh mozzarella—simplicity made sublime by the quality of the ingredients. Veal Marsala has morphed into grilled, pepper-crusted veal tenderloin with wild mushrooms in Marsala jus; cacciatore now substitutes pheasant, duck, and rabbit for chicken. Some dishes—like whole baked rockfish stuffed with spinach, pignoli, and breadcrumbs and topped with spumante mustard sauce—are a skilled fusion of Sicily and native Maryland. Others tap the glories of the wine cellar, like a grilled bistecca in Barolo. Suffice to say, choosing among the dizzying array of tempting dishes is now almost as difficult as picking out a bottle from that cellar. Happily, the friendly waitstaff will be glad to help you. As for dessert, even our resident cannoli-hater loves Della Notte's version, proof that dinner here is up to very high standards, from beginning to end.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 720 Aliceanna Street, 410-332-1666. Very expensive.Fleming's carves out its steakhouse niche by getting more creative with appetizers and sides than most. Seared tuna, sliced thin and arranged on the plate with a wasabi-mustard sauce, was mouthwatering and sinus-clearing. The charcuterie plate featured duck salami, pâté, prosciutto, and speck. It was all delicious, and very nearly made for a meal in itself. But that's not why people come here: It's meat they want to eat. The steaks are, of course, huge and delicious. We appreciate the bone-in filet mignon and New York Strip for the added flavor (and flair) the bone lends to the steak. Sadly, a joint that double bills itself as a wine bar had precious little outside of nationally available major wineries on the list, and almost nothing from Europe. We'll chalk that one up to a failing of the national home office; we got over it pretty fast once our super-rich molten lava chocolate cake arrived.
The Helmand, 806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311. Moderate. Dining at this Afghan jewel of a restaurant is like entering a time machine—and we mean that in a good way. After all, little of what made the Helmand's opening back in 1989 such a landmark event has changed, including (remarkably) the prices. Marinated meat dishes like the lamb lawand and beef kabobs are as tender as ever; the kaddo borawni (sautéed pumpkin in yogurt-garlic sauce) is still a delightfully tangy and sweet surprise; the fragrant stews, enticingly laced with flavors like mint, cilantro, ginger, and subtle heat, are just as addictive as they were 18 years ago. The Helmand remains one of the few places where vegetarians and meat eaters alike can easily find dining happiness. Add that to fine service, a reasonable wine list, and a room that befits both special nights out or casual gatherings, and you've got the makings of a much-venerated institution. Venerated but not venerable: Somehow, The Helmand still seems as fresh, hip, and new as the day it opened.
Iron Bridge Wine Company, 10435 Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456. Expensive. In a relatively short time, Iron Bridge has grown from an unassuming wine bar and retail stop to a fully fledged restaurant, caterer, and fine-wine emporium. The cozy lighting and inviting interior are immediately welcoming, and the option of browsing for your dinner wine amongst Iron Bridge's formidable collection of retail offerings is downright irresistible. But don't think for a minute that the food here is secondary. We're happy to wolf down succulent shrimp finished with a hazelnut beurre blanc, or buffalo sirloin steak, or black sea bass that is perfectly complemented by a dusting of sea salt. We're also addicted to the lobster mac-and-cheese, oozing richness with every forkful. A no-brainer if you live nearby, and well worth the drive if you don't, it's no wonder that—recent expansion notwithstanding—this place has lines out the door on a regular basis.
Ixia, 518 N. Charles Street, 410-727-1800. Expensive. Chef Kevin Miller and crew are doing wonders in the kitchen of Ixia. Seared foie gras with fig compote and a dash of star anise is good, but that little dollop of chili-laced sea salt on the side is divine. Huge scallops finished with a grapefruit-scented sauce are another favorite. And if beef is your thing, we loved our bacon-wrapped filet mignon with black truffle sauce. Sweet endings are fanciful and creative as well, like the coconut ice cream bombe matched with a toasted almond truffle. Sounds good? How about washing all that down with not-too-sweet Venezuelan hot chocolate? We thought so. And the electric-blue room is as chic as ever. Yet despite all this, Ixia is one of our most frustrating assignments—with such wonderful food and atmosphere, Ixia should be one of our town's all-stars. If only the service was more reliable and experienced, it would be. But it continues to be inconsistent—friendly on one visit, frosty the next—and tending toward the ditzy. Still, with food and environs this good, we're willing to repeat our order a couple times.
Jordan's Steakhouse, 8085 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-461-9776. Very expensive.Jordan's doesn't aspire to compete with the national steakhouse chains that populate Baltimore. This Ellicott City outpost instead offers a cozier, more relaxed, less testosterone-infused dining experience. And they do as fine a job with seafood as they do with steak. On one recent visit, we were delighted by a large and lump-laden crab crake. We also dispatched a dozen local oysters on the half shell without any trouble. We only wish the kitchen had left the mignonette on the side. The oysters were so delicious and fresh, we would have preferred them plain. All the steaks are beefy, but the signature ribeye "cowboy" cut is our perennial favorite. The well-stocked and occasionally adventurous wine list will have something for everyone (except, oddly, Burgundy lovers). "Chef Dan's Cheesecake" deserves serious post-meal consideration. It is creamy, lush, and absolutely delicious. Or combine a dollop of handmade gelato with a dessert martini for an indulgent after-dinner drink.
Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar, 195 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-263-4688. Moderate. We'd gladly brave the long lines at this jam-packed, rough-and-ready Japanese restaurant just to get our hands on a plate of Joss' succulent toro (that's tuna belly to you). Fat, silky, and sparkling fresh, it helps explain the clientele's fanatical devotion, which obviously doesn't lie in the pleasant but somewhat shabby dining room or in the brusquely efficient service. At Joss, it's all about the sushi, which may well be the best you'll find around these parts. The menu is impossibly large, so let us make it simple for you: Start with the seaweed salad topped with your favorite seafood—we're partial to the crunch of sweet baby conch, but you can get anything from abalone to squid. Try the maguro poke, a brilliant dish of chopped raw tuna, yama imo(grated Japanese yam), soy, sesame oil, scallions, Japanese pepper, sesame seed, and pine nuts (yes, pine nuts). Turn to the menu of sushi selections and pick your, er, poison (no, that's not a fugujoke). Whether you get sushi, sashimi, or the daunting selection of rolls, they'll all be beautiful and fresher than fresh. Don't forget to order some sake (although we wished they served it cold here) or Japanese beer to provide the proper libation for your fish feast. And do not fail to order dessert—like everything else on the menu, the grilled bananas with honey and praline are good and good for you.
Kali's Court, 1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700. Very expensive. Kali's remains as lovely as ever, all blues and golds and deep mahogany with soaring tin ceilings and the occasional exposed brick. It's the perfect setting for a Big Event dinner—and, it must be noted, it has the prices to match. (Kali's is one of those places where tap water isn't even mentioned as an option.) But the price of admission gets you sparkling fresh seafood that's treated with real respect. Witness an entrée of fat seared scallops, silkily tender within and sweetly crisp without, perched on an island of toothsome risotto that in turn is surrounded by a creamy pool of corn emulsion dotted with fresh, sugary kernels. It's so rich and sensual, it almost feels like you're eating dessert as your main dish (which is good, since actual desserts seem to be a weak spot here). And even the token fish-hater in your party will dine happily; on our most recent visit, just the smell of the massive, tender braised lamb shank was enough to make us swoon. Service is formal and attentive, and able to help diners navigate a wine list that goes beyond the standard cabs and chards to more interesting pairings. Kali's may be a splurge, but it's a splurge that satisfies.
Linwoods, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030. Expensive. Outstanding service, comfortable surroundings, and a hotshot kitchen: That's Linwood's. We're impressed by the consistent quality of the food here, despite the sometimes heavy volume of customers. Meat and fish make up the bulk of the menu, but each dish contains a flourish that tickles our fancy. A potentially mundane hamburger is launched into orbit when topped with a slice of seared foie gras; the accompanying fries are jazzed up with truffle oil. We're also big fans of the lobster cocktail, featuring generous morsels of claw and tail meat, perfectly steamed. On our last visit, service remained cheerful and helpful despite being upbraided regularly by what seemed to be the Grumpiest Diners in the World. (Not us, we swear!) Wine choices mostly consist of competent but unexciting big producers, but we were quite happy with our server's suggestion. Desserts are also a cut above. Our fruit tart was bursting with fresh pear, and the flaky crust bespoke in-house preparation.
Martick's Restaurant Français, 214 W. Mulberry Street, 410-752-5155. Moderate. Okay, we (and everyone else who write about restaurants in this town) have been admonishing Baltimore food fans to support Martick's for years. We've warned you about Morris "Maurice" Martick's advancing age. We've wrung our hands about the fate of his building. We've played the nostalgia card about the well-preserved interior, the family history, and famous past patrons (Billie Holiday sang there, back when it was a bar). But on our last visit, on a Saturday night, Martick's was comfortably empty. So we're going to make this as plain as possible. Martick's is not haute cuisine. It is a delicious slice of counterculture that seems to be Baltimore's secret strength. If you have an ounce of flexibility and sense of adventure, please go, and go often. Slurp down the sweet potato soup; wolf the house made pâté; revel in the bouillabaisse, or the scallops over jasmine rice and brandied seafood. Wash it down with copious amounts of passable red wine in tiny little wine glasses. We want to see Baltimore derrières in chairs, now. We want to ring the bell on the outside of the weather-worn dilapidation and find only bar seating. And we hereby throw down the gauntlet: Martick's has survived so much urban decay, and waited in vain for urban renewal, that no civic leader can claim to care about these issues until he or she has broken bread at this war-horse Baltimore treasure.
Metropolitan, 169 West Street, Annapolis, 410-268-7733. Very expensive. If you've been thinking of Annapolis as that cute, quaint little town full of nice pubs and fudge shops, Metropolitan will show you just how out of touch you are. With three floors of chic minimalist space (plus a rooftop deck with its own bar and, occasionally, DJ), Metropolitan is soooo much cooler than you. Still, once you crash its party, you're poised to enjoy some of the most creative food getting made around here today. The menu is seasonal—those English peas will not be around to offer their fresh snap to a moist hunk of black cod if you visit right now, but something just as good will be made with what's fresh today. Everything is gorgeously presented; the perfect curl of a lobster tail perched on a pile of black-truffle risotto is so pretty, you almost don't want to eat it. But Metropolitan has more than good looks to keep it going. When you do dig into that risotto, you'll be treated to a toothsome, decadent vehicle for the earthy taste of truffle and the sweet savor of lobster. As befits a party zone for the post-collegiate set, Metropolitan makes some ridiculous yet enjoyable cocktails. But your young and knowledgeable server will be thrilled if you take an interest in the admirable wine list, which deserves more attention than it probably gets. And if the espresso crème brûlée is available, do order it—not only is it brutally good, it will help keep you up all night, like the with-it scenester that you are.
Nasu Blanca, 1036 E. Fort Avenue, 410-962-9890. Expensive. This Locust Point restaurant is the newest addition to our list, but it swept us away when it opened late last summer. Chef/owner David Sherman's founding concept—a place serving both Japanese and Spanish cuisine—seemed problematic. But we have to admit, it works. You can start your meal with a tasting cup of junmai daiginjo sake, move onto a dusky pool of maitake (hen of the woods) mushroom soup swirled with shimmering green shiso oil, and then—surprise!—wind up supping on a saffron-laced and chorizo-studded paella for dinner, with a glass of good Spanish rioja to wash it down. And you won't suffer a jot of cognitive dissonance in the process, unless it's to wonder what such a creative and chic little boîte is doing here. The menu changes seasonally, but the Kobe beef filet paired with a cylinder of spicy tuna tempura seems to be a permanent fixture, and is well worth ordering. For dessert, we recommend anything involving a house-made ice cream or sorbet, neither of which has disappointed so far. Make reservations, as this small but well-designed space fills up quickly, which brings up our one caveat: Our most recent reports have been that the place has been stumbling a little lately, the victim of its own success. From everything we've seen so far, however, we're hopeful that Sherman will pull through this initial adjustment period and make this place a favorite of ours for years to come.
O'Learys Seafood Restaurant, 310 Third Street, Annapolis, 410-263-0884. Expensive. Every time we visit this Eastport restaurant, we leave feeling both soothed and impressed. The soothing comes from the warm yellow dining room, which manages to balance formal with casual, and from service that achieves that same difficult balancing act. Meanwhile, the food never fails to impress, especially the always fresh seafood. Some dishes have an Asian flair, like an appetizer of panko-and-wasabi-encrusted scallops over a Thai noodle salad, a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Others are resolutely American, like the sweet briny oysters fried in cornmeal. In all cases, though, you'll be treated to the freshest fish you didn't catch yourself. To truly appreciate its quality, the simplest preparation tends to be best—go for a simple grilling over the appealingly elaborate "chef's selections" that make up the entrée list. Yes, macadamia-encrusted shrimp and Thai barbecue glaze sound delicious, but they also make it hard to concentrate on the moist, flavorful mahi mahi beneath them. Feel free to ask your server for wine advice—they are eager to share their considerable knowledge—though, if you're in the mood, this is a restaurant that knows its way around a cocktail shaker quite well. Impressed yet?
The Oregon Grille, 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505. Very expensive. This clubby bastion of the horsey set has always been a marvelous place to feel privileged, pampered, and rich—the elegant dining rooms filled with horse paraphernalia, the piano tinkling jazz standards in the corner, the jacket-required formality of the staff and environs. Lately, the food has stepped up to equal the high-class comforts this setting provides, featuring top-quality ingredients in classic, non-fussy preparations. Everything quietly trumpets simple luxury, from the lobster martini featuring generous chunks of shellfish in Absolut Citron vinaigrette to a perfectly cooked prime sirloin, or a simple but gorgeous special of swordfish medallions dusted in flour and sautéed to a crisp. Service here, once prone to haughtiness, now offers what fine service requires: still formal, but dedicated to making you feel special. For example, your waiter will happily guide you through the enormous and impressive wine list, and tempt you with a dessert selection befitting a sybaritic retreat in the country.
Pazo, 1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296. Moderate. The frenzy that greeted Pazo's opening months has subsided, but the place still draws a crowd with its theatrical setting—soaring white ceilings, pavilioned booths, wrought-iron chandeliers—and its seductive range of tapas. Pazo is one of the few places in town to savor jamón ibérico, that deep red Spanish ham made from acorn-fed mountain pigs. Its rich, sultry complexity would be reason enough to visit this place. But keep passing those small plates around the table, because what comes next could be even better: a small thin-crust pizza that pairs bitter arugula with sweet fennel-laced sausage, an orange-inflected ceviche, delicate white merluza (hake) sparked with the tartness of pomegranate sauce. Even the breads are delicious—you'll have to pay for them, but it's worth it so you can catch every last drip of olive oil from each and every plate. Pazo is not without its flaws—it's loud, for one thing, thanks to both the crowds and the beats provided by a talented in-house DJ. And those small plates can add up to a large check in a hurry, especially if you heed the server's advice about the number of dishes each person should order (two to three will probably do you just fine). Still, there's a reason why, two years after its opening, Pazo remains the place to be.
Peter's Inn, 504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313. Moderate. Nothing captures a classic Baltimore dining experience better than Peter's Inn. We're not talking about crab cakes or sauerkraut or snowballs; no, what Bud and Karin Tiffany's tiny Fells Point pub offers is the uniquely delightful (and quintessentially Baltimore) incongruity of eating refined, but somehow unfussy, cuisine in the comforting surrounds of a low-down, slightly divey neighborhood tavern. Yes, the divey-ness has been tamed a bit in recent years by a smoking ban and tablecloths, but the atmosphere is still relentlessly local—young urban sophistos mingling with bikers, bankers, and the elderly couple from around the way. On a recent Saturday night, we just missed the last table (note: no reservations taken) and repaired to the bar, which is really the place to be if you want to feel like a regular. Take a look at the chalkboard menu—the world-food offerings change weekly—and choose, say, an intensely orange butternut squash bisque studded with fat hunks of lobster. Follow that with some Asian fusion (a barely seared tuna steak with its tangle of seaweed salad and pungent miso-soy sauce) or with the all-American steak and potatoes, almost always on offer here. No matter how ambitious or straightforward, the food is reliably good and reasonably priced. Service on crazily crowded nights can be spotty, but if you're intent on soaking up authentic Baltimore atmosphere, you'll be too busy rubber-necking to notice.
Petit Louis Bistro, 4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393. Moderate. Petit Louis is not the place to go for an intimate date; it's the place to come with a group or a good friend for some fun catching up. Like a proper French bistro, it's loud and tightly packed and teetering just on the edge of chaos. Lately, we've noticed it teetering a little more precipitately; on our last visit, service was unusually harried and confused, and the usually wonderful French onion soup was served barely lukewarm. But we have faith in husband-and-wife team Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf to right this bateau, even when managing two other restaurants and opening a fourth. Plus, there's nothing wrong with Petit Louis's underlying concept, namely using quality ingredients with classic French technique. You can taste it in that marvelous duck confit, or a simple filet of grilled salmon with sautéed leeks and mushrooms. And we would never deny the simple, heart-slowing pleasure of its steak frites. Worried about the butter? You'll just have to counteract it with another selection from Foreman's thoughtful list of French wines.
The Prime Rib, 1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804. Very expensive. The pianist at The Prime Rib's plexiglass piano never stops playing "Happy Birthday." We understand; what better place can there be to celebrate a special occasion? From the moment you enter, you're treated to the sense that you are the most important person in the room. Please! Allow them to move your chair for you. Would the lady enjoy a specialty cocktail? They would be delighted to recommend one to suit her mood. Would the gentleman prefer a crab cake to the lobster tail listed on the surf-and-turf special? He need only ask. Once you've sunk into your well-padded chair, given yourself over to the nonstop pampering, and taken in the 1940's-era luxe of the place, it seems almost ridiculous not to order the most gratifying, decadent food on the menu. You can't go wrong with its namesake dish, a rosy, buttery slab of meltingly tender beef; but those crab cakes are also quite impressive, full of big sweet lumps with just the least little bit of filler to bind them. And for dessert, we will always succumb to the alluring comfort of the Rib's bread pudding. Go ahead, indulge; it's your birthday. And even if it isn't, you'll feel like it is by the end of the night.
Rooster Cafe, 6590 Old Waterloo Road, Elkridge, 443-755-0600. Moderate. We struggled for a while over whether to include the Rooster Cafe on this list. After all, not everything on our latest visit was as great as we'd remembered, and the three-course prix fixe has ticked up to $40 from last year's $36, making it feel like less of a bargain. There were some real rookie mistakes made: A boring and overly dense potato pancake accompanying our steak, which in turn was overcooked to our tastes, probably because our server never asked us which temperature we preferred. An otherwise fine apricot tart was slightly burnt along one edge. And yet, something about Rooster makes us admire it. The cozy, casual Provençal dining room; the ever-changing, carefully limited menu; the loopy badinage between chef/owner Mark Schek, who will often come out to wander among the tables between courses, and his waiter—the place has character, is what we're saying. And when it's on, it's on: Witness the luxurious depth of a soup made of sweet corn and shrimp. Schek can cook, when he has a mind to, and he cooks only what he likes—no focus-group decisions or marketing manuals are in play. Flaws, foibles, and strengths, they're all part of one person's very idiosyncratic vision. Give Rooster Cafe another 20 years or so, and it could be the suburban equivalent of Martick's—a quirky, unpredictable experience, as much as a restaurant.
Roy's, 720B Aliceanna Street, 410-659-0099. Expensive. We love Roy's, and so does everybody else. Make no mistake, the place can get cacophonous, especially on weekend nights—we wouldn't recommend it for a relaxed tête-à-tête. But it's a fun, festive atmosphere, cheered by tropical orange walls and a brisk, upbeat attitude among servers. If they're out of your wine choice, they're happy to grab you one of the last two bottles of an alternate Oregon pinot noir that they think is just super(and it is). Wine pairings can be a little tricky here, as so much of the Hawaiian fusion menu features seafood, but it's also hard to resist the seductive draw of its meat items. (Hawaiians do some really delicious things with pork, you know.) Some of them surprise—a special of hunter's stew dotted with gnocchi and filled with braised lamb tastes like autumn in the Italian Alps, not Oahu at sunset. But it's delicious nevertheless. The sweet and spicy punch of mussels steamed in a citrusy Thai-style broth, meanwhile, is uncompromisingly Asian. In between these two extremes, ultra-rich butterfish melds luxuriously with ginger-wasabe cream—a true taste of East-meets-West fusion. If you can't swing a trip out the islands any time soon, this may be the next best thing.
Ruth's Chris Steak House, multiple locations including Pier 5 at the Inner Harbor, 711 Eastern Avenue, 410-230-0033. Very expensive. The Pier 5 location of this national chain continues to be our favorite, with its bold hues and overstuffed comfort. The steaks are, not surprisingly, huge and delicious. We can do without the mundane sides, hardly required when one is staring down almost a pound of cow. But what cow! We recommend the filet mignon for its succulent texture and mild flavor, or the ribeye if you want to go bold. If you like things medium rare, be sure to order rare, as the curious corporate habit of bringing your meat out on a sizzling plate keeps it cooking. The wine list is aimed squarely at Mr. Bigshot, populated with expensive Bordeaux and high-scoring Californians; those on expense accounts will be lost in Cabernet bliss. If you're a tea lover, you will take particular delight in the offerings from In Pursuit of Tea, a fantastic Connecticut-based tea house. Just the thing for washing down our Hollywood-rich "chocolate sin cake."
Saffron, 802 N. Charles Street, 410-528-1616. Moderate. Saffron had us at the oysters: Plump fried specimens lying in a swirl of a spicy tobiko remoulade, facing a delicate pile of seaweed salad. How could all of this possibly work together? And yet bite after bite proved that it did, the salty-sweet seaweed becoming the perfect foil to the mustardy tinge of the rémoulade. Even more miraculous, our other appetizer was just as good: braised lamb and cinnamon-spiced goat cheese wrapped in delicate ravioli, slathered in a sage beurre noisette, each flavor combining into something sweet and sultry and utterly autumnal. No doubt about it, Edward Kim—who spent some time in D.C. after closing his Soigné—has breathed new life into this Mt. Vernon restaurant since moving into its kitchen. We'd heard reports of service flaws and cooking flubs during the early days of his transition, but on our last visit everything was operating like well-oiled clockwork—and this was in a packed house. (Reservations are strongly recommended.) Our server remained gracious under the obvious crush, and food came out in timely procession. And the food stayed just as good through the main courses: We still treasure our memory of that seared hamachi, the crisp bite of its skin contrasting with its creamy flesh, and the even creamier pool of lobster-infused risotto that surrounded it. A menu that blithely traipses from France to Japan and all points in between could result in chaotic disaster, but Kim pulls it off. We're glad to have him back.
Salt, 2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480. Moderate. Visiting Salt can require a certain amount of strategy. After all, you want to go hungry, so that you can eat both a cone full of those duck-fat French fries and an inventive entrée, like the coriander-and-pepper-crusted tuna in a ginger-soy glaze with seaweed salad and fried dumplings filled with spicy minced tuna. But on the weekends, you could be looking at more than an hour-long wait for a table. Our suggestions: Go on a weeknight, or very early, or try to get there an hour before you get really hungry, or eat at the bar, or round up five companions so that you reach the required amount of people to make a reservation at this tiny Butcher's Hill gastropub. But whatever course of action you take, by all means, go. Go for the rich satisfaction of the duck-confit ravioli. Go for the over-the-top whimsy of a Kobe beef slider topped with seared foie gras. Go, if nothing else, for the bragging rights of having dined at one of the hottest openings of this past year.
Sotto Sopra, 405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534. Expensive. Sotto Sopra always makes us want to dress to impress—not because of the clientele, who don't seem any more stylish than diners elsewhere, but because of the sexy décor and gorgeously presented food. When your baby arugula salad comes cinched into a smooth belt of parmesan crouton, its gleaming green tower artfully dotted with deep red dried cherries and bright white goat cheese, you don't want to look dull by comparison. Happily, there is just as much substance as style to these Italian dishes. Even boring old chicken breast becomes fascinating, when it is perfectly cooked and filled with a combination of figs, prosciutto, and sage. The fresh pastas—flavored with everything from cocoa to foie gras—are a must. The wine list stays on top of the trends—here's the place to sample that Gruner Veltliner you've read so much about—and service is efficient yet relaxed. The food tends toward the rich, so we recommend ending with a refreshing bowl of house-made sorbet. That will help you maintain the figure you need to keep wearing that sleek, chic outfit.
Tapas Teatro, 1711 N. Charles Street, 410-332-0110. Moderate. With its sleek, minimalist interior—warmed by exposed brick and lots of wood—and its modern, well-executed (and seemingly endless) roster of Mediterranean tapas, Tapas Teatro is justifiably a local favorite. That it happens to be adjacent to The Charles, Baltimore's favorite neighborhood art-house cinema, makes a stop here before or after the show particularly irresistible. If the convivial crowd has already taken up all the table space, grab a seat at the bar nestled to the side and feast on simple but satisfying bites like fresh and sun-dried tomatoes with gorgonzola on baguette, roasted potatoes in cilantro sour cream, or fried shrimp with lemon and salsa picante. More substantial plates include a nice variety of grilled fish and meats, and even a hearty traditional paella. If you can't choose, just order lots of stuff and share the wealth—Teatro is the perfect place to bring a gang of compatriots, if you're lucky enough to nab a table. The eminently reasonable wine list is loaded with tapas-appropriate selections, like the fun, fizzy txakoli straight from the Basque country or the goes-with-anything Navarran rosado. Now if the latest Almodovar happens to be playing next door, you've practically bought yourself a ticket to España.
Tersiguel's, 8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004. Expensive. If we were only allowed to visit this Country French restaurant once a year, we'd save our trip for the summer, when we could take the greatest advantage of the produce from the Tersiguel family's small farm. Those fresh-from-the-vine heirloom tomatoes slay us every time we bite into them. But really, why limit yourself to just one trip? In every season, Tersiguel's offers the best ingredients served with minimal fuss and maximum respect for French tradition. We love their house-made meats, like the sausage and bacon that enrich their warm potato salad appetizer, a taste of homey comfort that's sharpened by its accompanying swirl of mustard. But even the things that the Tersiguels do not cure or raise themselves are superlative: Every bite of their American Kobe-style beef makes you remember what an indulgence steak can be, especially when accented by their rich and savory wild mushroom ragoût. Servers are friendly without being obsequious, helpful without being controlling. The rooms in this old house-turned-restaurant are cozy and old-fashioned—some might go so far as to call them dowdy, but we like their homey charm. (In colder months, we prefer the front or upstairs rooms, as the greenhouse windows of the back dining room leave it a trifle chilly.) From tomatoes to curio cabinets, we hope Tersiguel's never changes.
Thai Landing, 1207 N. Charles Street, 410-727-1234. Inexpensive. The changes afoot in the 1200 block of Charles Street may well leave Thai Landing's many fans pondering. Come spring, construction on a multimillion dollar condominium and retail center surrounding this longstanding favorite will be completed, a change destined to make Mt. Vernon's humble but celebrated restaurant more popular than ever. And so, inquiring minds want to know: Will the menu of traditional Thai go all trendy and upscale? Will the rock-bottom prices skyrocket? Most important, will (more) success spoil Charlie the Waiter? We can't say for absolutely sure, but a recent visit strongly hints that Landing enthusiasts needn't worry. The impending changes have obviously spurred a much-needed but relatively modest refurbishing of the restaurant's interior (new paint, new furnishings, new carpet), suggesting that there are no plans to go haute. Old favorites on the still dirt-cheap menu also seemed brighter, fresher, more flavorful—the classic Thai balance of hot, salty, sour, and sweet perfectly in balance. The restorative thom kha gai (chicken and straw mushrooms in coconut-galanga broth) was soothingly suave. Famously incendiary three-star (translation: HOT!) dishes like pla mueg pad kra-prao (stir-fried squid with basil, hot peppers, and fresh vegetables) were vibrant and take-your-head-off fiery. And Charlie? He wasn't there the night we made our visit, but if he stays as consistent as the rest of the Landing has, we don't need to worry.
Trattoria Alberto, 1660 Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922. Expensive. Crain Highway is an unlikely place to run into delicious, authentic, regionally specific Italian food, but that is exactly what Trattoria Alberto delivers. Fans of meticulously prepared Northern Italian fare will delight in everything Alberto (and yes, chef/owner Alberto Constabile is very much present in his restaurant) has to offer. Take advantage of the succulent and smoky duck prosciutto appetizer; from there, delve into any of the house-made pasta dishes before leaping headlong into the vitello aromatica, veal sautéed in white wine, green onion, shallots, and mushrooms. Alberto also excels at seafood, and we were delighted by the branzino, simply presented in a sauce of white wine, garlic, and crushed pepper. Try not to get too stuffed, though, because the daily selection of house-made desserts is about to be wheeled over to your table. Trust us, resistance is futile. Have an espresso, indulge your sweet tooth, and enjoy the fact that at the bar, Constabile and the floor manager are arguing in animated Italian about Barolo reviews in the new issue of Gambero Rosso.
Vin, 1 E. Joppa Road #155, Towson, 410-337-0797. Expensive. Chef Christopher Paternotte's self-described "oasis of quality, sophistication, and joy" certainly boasts the hippest digs north of the city line. The sleek interior, muted soundtrack, and dayglo videos make for an engaging dining experience, and the deep red tones echo the place's name (pronounced "Vine"). Vin is proud of its wine selections, which are blessedly free of the factory fare that usually dominates a freshman list; we're hopeful that it will get more interesting with time. Meanwhile, the food is up to speed. We enjoy the house salad for its fresh grapes and zingy, slightly sweet dressing; we're also fans of the lobster corn dog and the perfectly grilled hanger steak. We appreciate the $2 miniature desserts, allowing us to indulge in sweets without committing to some huge piece of cake. The only hitch in the evening continues to be service. Well-intentioned and energetic, the young staff nonetheless needs to work on coordination and timing. Rookie errors, like forgotten drinks and steak knives, are wrinkles that should be easy for Vin to iron out; the sooner they do, the more "joy" we're going to feel.
The Wild Orchid Cafe, 909 Bay Ridge Avenue, Annapolis, 410-268-8009. Expensive. We hesitate to label Wild Orchid "expensive." True, entrées do hover around the $30 mark. But for just $9 more than that, you can order the prix fixe, which includes soup, salad, any of the entrées, and dessert. That's one heck of a deal, especially when the food's this good. Recently, our eyes widened at the first taste of a simple soup of chicken and white beans: soft, soothing, and savory all at once. A venison osso bucco, meanwhile, managed to make this frequently tough game meat tender and mild. Each kernel of rice in the accompanying truffle-infused risotto was so delicate and soft that one diner thought he was eating some novel kind of pasta. Almost as pillowy were the gorgonzola gnocchi that surrounded a massive piece of broiled wild rockfish, their milder flavors heightened with the judicious use of bacon and shallots. Chef/owner Jim Wilder keeps things simple; his revolving menu offers just a handful of entrées on any given night, and occasionally can eschew appetizers altogether. The space reflects this attitude; the dining room is carved out of an old residential bungalow, painted a cheerful yellow, and hung with just enough artwork to make the place feel comfortable. Add in casual but courteous service, and you have a place just right for anything from quiet catching up with old friends to celebrating an anniversary.
The Wine Market, 921 E. Fort Avenue, 410-244-6166. Moderate. A spacious, industrial room and an efficient staff combine with delicious food and a casual atmosphere to make The Wine Market one of our favorites for lunch or dinner. The menu ranges from delicious sesame-crusted tuna to exquisitely marinated grilled lamb chops with almond-mint pesto—that last a bow to the staid mint-jelly condiment, but contemporary, thoughtful, and texturally superior. (Note: The menu changes regularly anyway, and as we mentioned in the Corks write-up, the kitchen has a new chef, so some of these dishes may no longer be available.) On one visit, we were impressed with the monkfish special. The fish had been braised in white wine, and then served with a sauce of tomato, red pepper, onion, squash, and white bean, with a touch of basil and a hint of spice. It could have been a soupy marinara disaster; instead, it was sophisticated, interesting, and heavenly. Likewise, the ginger crème brûlée with sake-marinated plums was a heady spin on an otherwise ubiquitous dessert. It's a creative enough kitchen to entice us back again and again, without the ceremony of a powerhouse chef or ultra-formal dining service. Plus, the option of selecting any of the wines from their adjoining wine shop to go with your dinner ensures a completely pleasurable evening.
Yin Yankee Cafe, 105 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-268-8703. Moderate. Yin Yankee is fun. The drinks are fun (there's a whole "Wacky Asian Drinks" section to the list, and the cocktails have names like "Girl With One Pearl Nose Ring") and come in stemless tumblers. The décor is colorful and trippy—tables that iridesce like oil slicks, goofy-looking fish on the walls. And the food is just a hoot. They don't serve crab cakes; instead, there are "crab chops," molded around sugarcane skewers and served with wasabi mashed potatoes. But it's just as tasty as it is whimsical, which is why this place continues to impress. We love the tea-smoked duck, each intriguing slice begging to be paired with a bit of shiitake mushroom and a morsel of scallion pancake, the whole thing arranged into a lovely cylindrical structure that pleases the eye as well as the palate. The wine list is as idiosyncratic as the rest of the place, and can escalate into a pretty substantial price range, considering the cafe's casual vibe. Servers are either terrific or, well, not very terrific at all; roll the dice and take your chance. But there's so much that's right about this little spot that it's no wonder it's always packed, which leads to the one thing about Yin Yankee that isn't fun: Since they don't take reservations, you may have to resign yourself to a wait for a table.