CORKS STYLE: Sleek, bistro-style setting.
CUISINE: Casual, seasonally-inspired menu with a focus on wine.
YOU'LL FIND: Lovely fondues and cheese plates in addition to throwback dishes like corn dogs and bread pudding.
Our famously tardy dining companions, caught in a parking space search pattern familiar to weekend visitors to Federal Hill, drove past us yet again as we fidgeted against the chill. A stinging breeze strewed fast-food wrappers and fallen leaves about this dimly lit stretch of South Charles Street, already marred by an ugly, temporary, above-ground water pipe. Amid the grimness, warm yellow light poured out of Corks' storefront, a cheery beacon promising good times and fine repast.
That glow emanates from a slick, Moderne backlit wall installed opposite the tiled open kitchen at the entrance of the reinvented Corks. With dizzying brightness, it announces the urbane style that's resulted from a two-month-long overhaul. The place looks great—attractive, coordinated, almost spare in its sleekness, yet inviting. Sophistication trimmed of unnecessary flourish is a sensibility that's been applied as much to the menu as to the décor. Corks has traded opulence for accessibility, serving pub fare and comfort food tweaked with high-end components. But streamlined recipes can magnify imperfect execution, tempering an otherwise superior dining experience.
Beyond the kitchen lies what was once the main dining area, now a sort of anteroom that's most notable for a table showcasing the restaurant's impressive array of domestic artisan cheeses. Upstairs seating is the domain of private functions or overflow diners. But the real action is through a narrow hallway to the bustling back room, handsomely enclosed in dark wood, clean lines, and rich, masculine hues. The space exudes congeniality, a cross between ye-olde-tavern cozy and Mission-style cool, described by a friend as "a Frank Lloyd Wright hunting lodge." A lively, well-appointed bar, an upbeat, blue-jeaned staff, and chummy fellow diners impart a convivial vibe, while butcher paper on the tables is perhaps a nod to the kitchen's new bistro skew.
Service is remarkably good—prompt, attentive, knowledgeable, and just on the unintrusive side of friendly. Staff expertly guided us through the menu with few hiccups. The extensive and staunchly New World wine list is apparently more difficult to master—our server was simply unable to recommend a glass to accompany the grilled quail on one visit. But on another, the truly excellent Scottie displayed sommelier-like expertise, earning double bonus points for providing tastes of multiple wines unprompted.
The menu is a surprising, sometimes eyebrow-raising collection of fine-tuned favorites, dotted with throwback foods like corn dogs made with lamb, Nutella, and an odd abundance of frisée. All but the main courses are available from lunch until almost last call, a godsend for late-night diners. It is divided a bit preciously into "first thoughts," "thoughts on bread," "larger thoughts," and "final thoughts." "Fondue" and "greens" (salads), thankfully break the naming convention, and "the cheeses" one-ups with a definite article, denoting unmistakable status.
Accordingly, the "House Blend" fondue is as complex and refined as it is vintage and fun to share, with subtle points of the cheeses' sharpness and age elevating a tureenful of gooey richness. The portion is generous, so the unheated fondue tends to atrophy rather rapidily. Upgrades to the standard bread chunks range from basic crudités to posh bison meatballs and wine-soaked figs.
Starters are clever but skirt cutesiness with earnest quality. Five vermilion orbs—the size of jawbreakers—comprise the spectacular stuffed Peppadews, a brand of amazingly sweet peppers with mouth-invading juiciness and a subtle, spicy finish that all but overwhelms the filling's brief shot of creaminess. Two hefty pork foreshanks are braised until tender and barely-on-the-bone resilient. Uncomplicated, pervasive meatiness provides a rich base for the bright, tart barbecue sauce, but the pronounced curry flavor of the red cabbage slaw is puzzling. The Merguez corn dogs won over even the jaded among us with breading as crisp and light as a cornmeal batter can probably ever be, and an earthy lamb sausage center—both set off perfectly by zingy yellow mustard. Alas, the dogs were lukewarm, denying us the steamy, too-hot, first bite of the corn-dog experience.
Entrées are relatively straightforward, seasoned with a light hand. A roasted half-chicken was exceedingly succulent and juicy throughout, but the skin was flabby, browned only at its highest points. Roasted vegetable strudel with goat cheese and quinoa sounded like a sure thing, but the nearly-burnt phyllo and deflated filling evinced serious overcooking. The cheese was undetectable and quinoa scarce enough to count. We ordered it on another visit with better results—the phyllo was properly crisp, and the smoky filling of eggplant and kale (again missing cheese and quinoa) piping hot. A special of semi-deboned quail, grilled perfectly but lacking the daring vanilla and cardamom promised on the menu, was outshone by the simple flavor of the attendant roasted pumpkin cubes with dried cherries and bacon.
Daytime dining at Corks is a pleasure as the back room fills with soothing sunbeams and the pace is appropriately relaxed. The carefully devised sandwi . . ., er, "thoughts on bread" are served with house-cured, clove-heavy pickles and chips or slender, exceptionally crisp fries (be sure to ask for the chipotle ketchup). The refined shrimp salad, scented lightly with dill, and the über-porcine "Corks' Italian" are standouts. But brioche and aioli fail to sufficiently balance out the leanness of ground bison, and thus the beautiful Cork's burger was too dense and rather dry.
Of the desserts we tried, the chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, and bread pudding were mostly unadulterated, competent versions of the classics. But what we ordered again and again was the house-made cookie plate, reminiscent of our childhood.
Such small, special moments are part of what makes Corks so enjoyable. Though some problems exist, we invariably leave the restaurant happier than when we arrived.
Corks, 1026 S. Charles St., Federal Hill, corksrestaurant.com. Hours: Daily, full menu, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; lighter menu: 11:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m.; bar, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Appetizers: $4-10, entrées: $14-20, desserts: $6-8, brunch: $10-19.