It's not every restaurant opening that gets me thinking big thoughts on the nature of cultural change, but I guess it's only fitting that Spike Gjerde's long-awaited Woodberry Kitchen would be the place to do it. Gjerde—whose spectacular successes and failures on the local restaurant scene have made him perhaps the most recognizable chef in the city—is the philosopher king of Baltimore's tiny culinary world, famous for cogitating mightily on concepts that may seem wacky at first but turn out to be genius. No wonder that Woodberry, his first full-blown enterprise since the demise of his and brother Charlie's restaurant empire in 2005, would inspire musings on everything from tipping points to the future of food.
Tipping points? Clearly, Woodberry's concept—to offer a menu based around locally grown, organic food whenever possible—has captured lightning changes in our attitudes about what's fit to eat, a trend that's finally arrived even in stodgy Baltimore, where old habits die hard. (I reviewed The Dogwood Restaurant, which has an identical mission, just last month.) Call the Slow Food/locavore movement trendy, tragically hip, politically correct, whatever. Truth is, a gloriously simple bowl of Spike's orange and golden local carrots at Woodberry is good not because it feels virtuous (okay, it does), but because it tastes immeasurably better than jet-setting vegetables. Bring on the new orthodoxy.
Actually, Gjerde has been committed to some version of this idea—seasonal, fresh, innovative—for the 16-odd years he's been in the business. Woodberry is the first restaurant he's launched sans Charlie (who now operates Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point). This time, he's in partnership with wife Amy and Nelson Carey of Grand Cru Wine Bar—who has, by the way, compiled an impressive list of wines, including some surprisingly excellent regional selections (we love Virginia's White Hall Petit Verdot).
But Woodberry is homier and more scaled down than his previous projects, in keeping with a guy you feel has learned the hard way that keeping it simple may be the key to lasting success. I've heard various comments about the "weirdness" and "difficulty" of the menu, but frankly, I don't get that. The setup provides a playful but straightforward means to control how—and how much—you want to eat, from cold and warm small plates to full-blown entrées dubbed "Supper," in keeping with Woodberry's folksy "farm to table" motto.
For example, it's easy to eat light and even budget-conscious if you choose a handful of the "snacks" (improbably priced from one to four bucks) and items from the section of soups and warm plates. Those snacks range from fun stuff like fried hominy with chile mayo (ditch the toothpicks and pick up those crunchy little balls with your fingers) to killer deviled eggs with chipped ham to a big bowl of house-pickled peppers and olives. Our favorite warm plate featured shrimp from Marvesta Shrimp Farms in Maryland, which raises its product in a natural, enclosed ecosystem. Served heads-on and accompanied by a soft, corn-studded spoon bread, they are remarkably sweet and rich, and produce a heady pan sauce you'll want to sop up completely with the wood-fired, house-made bread. Less spectacular were the shell beans and sage sausage—hearty enough, but perhaps a tad too heavy with sage and thus redolent of mornings with Bob Evans.
Supper items are an eclectic mix of simple comfort foods rendered with exceptional care. A humble plate of shell beans and gold rice, a hamburger on a roll, a platter of bacon-and-egg fried rice (the ultimate hangover cure?) vie with a fabulously crisp and juicy half chicken, deboned and pan roasted in a cast-iron skillet, and served with sides of perfectly cooked chard and grits. Woodberry Kitchen especially shines when it comes to produce. One night, M and I were taken by a trio of randomly ordered small dishes, familiar flavors made sublime. Pears roasted to tenderness were gilded with a sweet and earthy reduction of buckwheat honey, and saved from dessert territory by a judicious sprinkling of sea salt. Golden, white, and pink beets, spiked with a dollop of tangy goat ricotta, tasted like candy dug from the earth. Those aforementioned carrots were served, according to the menu, "with their tops." The waiter pours those tops, pureed and combined with white wine and maple, over the carrots at the table. Sounds gimmicky; tastes fabulous.
And the setting is likewise pretty fabulous, in a totally rustic way, of course. No venue could be more perfect for this sort of eating than that successful monument to urban reclamation, Clipper Mill, an artsy green community that would've seemed a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream not long ago. Situated in the circa 1870 Foundry Building, Woodberry Kitchen takes advantage of the site's soaring ceilings, original factory fittings, and impressive expanses of exposed brick to create an atmosphere you might describe as post-industrial farmhouse. There's airy but sturdy ironwork by longtime Gjerde collaborator John Gutierrez and delicate blown glass light fixtures by Corradetti Glass Studio, both Clipper Mill residents. An open kitchen sits behind the wood-burning oven, which is usually manned by Gjerde himself. Whether you're dining on the bustling main floor or upstairs in the loft that overlooks it, the general feeling is of communal warmth, a sense enhanced by the young and almost comically earnest wait staff. Looking out the enormous front windows where neighborhood people gather around the huge nearby fire pit and the sun sets behind the wooded hills, you might believe you're in some European eco-village, far from Baltimore.
Quite a heady idyll to sustain, especially no more than several blocks from some of Hampden's meaner streets. But if some people blanch at the contradiction that eating—and living—"local" is a privilege afforded only to the upscale crowd that has flocked to Woodberry Kitchen from the day it opened, they'd be indulging, I think, in some serious short-sightedness. I'm guessing that, like his fellow locavore, Galen Sampson of Dogwood, Gjerde's commitment is about more than being trendy. It's about changing the community, and changing the way we think about how we eat for the long haul.