You could hear the sighs of sadness and regret all over Baltimore this winter when chef/owner Sonny Sweetman announced he was packing up his toque and selling Abacrombie Fine Food and Accommodations, whose kitchen had flourished for more than three years under his deft tutelage. When Sweetman left for loftier climes (literally—to the Alps of his wife Melanie's native Austria), he left behind a substantial coterie of fans anxiously wondering if Abacrombie could sustain its rep for subtly inventive cuisine at reasonable prices.
Well, fans, breathe a sigh of relief: Abacrombie is doing Sonny proud.
In some ways, the transition feels like a stealth maneuver. Although the local press covered the sale thoroughly, new owner Hank Vahora has changed neither the name of the place nor its muted-ivory décor. A look at the menu wouldn't give you a clue, either. There's still that terrific bargain of a chef's menu (three courses for $39, $52 with accompanying wines), and the a la carte list full of seasonal New American choices, some of them Sweetman standbys, like my favorite, an ambrosial seafood pot au feu. Indeed, an unsuspecting diner would be hard-pressed to guess that anything was different, except, perhaps, to note that the food was better than ever.
Yes, it is. New executive chef Michael Putnam learned from the master, honing his craft as Sweetman's sous chef. Without missing a beat, Putnam has ably filled his boss's shoes, while adding a few fancy steps of his own. Not that what he does is flashy or cutting-edge; it's just so good you can't help but get a little excited about it.
Take a first course of fried green tomatoes, whose billed accompaniment was basil aioli. Putnam must have gotten bored with that, because what came out of the kitchen was sided by a delicate cloud of something creamy and tinged with sweetness—the perfect fillip to the tart, juicy, crisp-breaded tomatoes. We tasted and tasted. "What is this?" Señor M finally queried our waiter.
The answer: "Vanilla-bean mascarpone cream." It was a simple but genius move.
More Southern accents and inventiveness (a Sweetman legacy) appeared in a first course of succulent little quail steeped in smoky marinade and served over luxurious grits with molasses—the menu says "strewn" with molasses, and I had a vision of Putnam somehow scattering the thick emulsion like rose petals over a marriage bed. Well, however the stuff gets there, it tastes like bliss.
Another night, another game bird—this time, a juicy squab gilded with apricot glaze and garnished with wilted greens and almonds atop a schmear of garlicky potato purée. Meanwhile, fat pan-seared scallops with grits—this time dolled up with goat cheese and lots of black pepper—gets a barely sweet kiss from judicious dabs of red currant compote. With starters like these, you'd never guess how avidly we devoured the basket of warm housemade baguette and focaccia.
But you really don't want to stop eating when every taste makes you smile with pleasure. A superb roasted pork loin features a triple jolt of the pig, its inside threaded with rosy ribbons of prosciutto, while a side of wilted arugula is dappled with pork belly. To counterpoint, there's a gilding of apple gastric and a soufflé-like bleu cheese gâteau. A Black Angus tenderloin is a model of simplicity, like the best Sunday dinner you ever had: a fine, flavorful hunk of meat, a bright pile of fresh spring peas and glazed carrots, a mound of buttery Lyonnaise potatoes.
Fish is similarly spectacular. One night I couldn't resist the first wild salmon of the season, which appeared on the chef's menu side of the just-inaugurated spring menu. "That's Tasmanian wild salmon," the waiter informed me. "Very difficult to get, but worth the effort." Indeed. The fish melted in my mouth like warm cream, the flavor somehow both intensely salmony and soft. Sides of sautéed spätzle and truffle-creamed artichokes played their supporting roles with quiet assurance: The fish was definitely the star of this show. And that seafood pot au feu? Putnam puts his own spin on it—it's heartier than Sweetman's, a jolt of horseradish providing a racy accompaniment to the tastes of the sea and a passel of vegetables.
Desserts measure up. One night we had so much trouble deciding among the offerings that our waiter composed plates featuring small samplings of each: a cool basil panna cotta inflected with the tropical flavors of a pineapple-coconut gelee, a killer Black Forest cheesecake with swoon-inspiring brandied cherries, and our favorite, a poppy seed roulade wreathed in Earl Grey-flavored frosting and lemon cream.
The sampler plates were the kind of gesture that characterized our waiter that whole evening: thoughtful, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the food and wine, warm without being obsequious or overbearing. However, on another night, a rush of customers caused our waitress some delays and setbacks; since events at the nearby Lyric and Meyerhoff make this a regular occurrence, that should be something the waitstaff handles with equal aplomb.
The wine list is compact but serviceable, with enough interesting selections to satisfy your average oenophile; the real strength of the bar is its selection of after-dinner liqueurs, ports, and dessert wines.
Although we didn't avail ourselves of those pleasures (after all that, how could we?), there would have been plenty to toast. Abacrombie—a favorite of ours since the Sweetmans opened it in 2003—has survived the departure of its founding father. And with Putnam at the helm, it looks like this gem of a venue will not only survive, but thrive.
Abacrombie Fine Food, 58 W. Biddle Street, 410-244-7227.