In a transitioning part of town known as Brewers Hill, the new Blue Hill Tavern is a beacon of refurbished sleekness—from its classy vertical sign to its renovated beige exterior.
But wait until you go inside. The building—within sight of the Natty Boh warehouse—has been dismantled and reassembled to wow visitors with a sophisticated spaciousness. Open stairs with chrome railings lead upward to a second-floor bar, balcony, patio, and dining room. Huge windows add light to the cerulean-blue accents and dark-wood floors and tables on both levels. The downstairs bar even has a cascading waterfall.
This has to be one of Baltimore's most impressive dining spaces. We were trying to take it all in when the hostess asked us where we'd like to be seated. We didn't know. We had just walked in for the first time. Finally, we managed to ask for a quiet spot after eyeing the crowded bar.
She led us to a table in the back, near a slightly elevated area that turned out to be co-owner/general manager Mel Carter's favorite alcove. We found this out later when he stopped by our table to ask how our meal was. (He didn't know we were reviewing the restaurant.)
What makes the curtained, raised alcove especially interesting is the signed menus on the walls from noted chefs wishing Carter well. It's hard not to be impressed with good tidings from The French Laundry, Per Se, Bradley Ogden, and Le Bernardin.
Carter, a Kingsville native who now lives in the house next door to where he grew up, is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America as is his chef, Brett Lockard. The creative, often playful imprint of these two culinary guys is all over Blue Hill's menu, which can best be described as continental American with international influences.
Take the steamed clams "casino," for example. This version trumps the original with chorizo, peppers, and onions on the littleneck clams in a delicate white-wine sauce. Or the Parmesan garlic doughnuts. These savory round crullers offer a taste sensation with powdered bacon (yes!) sprinkled liberally on top.
But we really relished the pork-belly appetizer with a fingerling-potato-peach salad. The decadent slab had just the right ratio of fat to meat. Our excellent waitress, Rosie, suggested this dish, so we have to thank her for steering us to it.
And that was just the start of her ministrations. She never missed a beat the whole night, paying attention to empty glasses, languishing dishes, and appearing at just the right intervals. We like that the service is polished, yet the servers wear jeans to avoid a "stuffy" air.
The entrees are pretty impressive though. The wild boar ragout with artichokes, tomatoes, and spinach was hearty and rich over silky pappardelle noodles.
A fat square of halibut over tender soba noodles was brilliantly white with freshness, flaked easily, and had an Asian kick with a miso glaze and bright green edamame. The succulent lamb chops, cooked medium as asked, had an interesting, flavorful chèvre crust and came lopped over a fluffy puff of comforting mashed potatoes.
Impressively, all the food was plated beautifully. Clearly, the chef takes an interest in each dish. And we hadn't even seen the desserts yet.
Blue Hill's pastry chef, Bettina Clair, is nothing short of amazing. Even if you are full to the bursting point, we urge you to loosen your belt and order one of the house-made offerings, if only to gaze at it. But we doubt you'll just eye the creations.
We felt an immediate sense of euphoria biting into the intensely dense chocolate silken pie. This is not like any other kind you've had. It was shaped like a small vessel, all chocolate, and topped with a magnificent dollop of frothy vanilla whipped cream. The raspberry on top was a pretty dress-up, not to mention the clever chocolate-covered Cocoa Puffs scattered on the plate.
The peanut-butter cup with Italian meringue was awesome, too. A dark-chocolate round filled with creamy peanut butter was a grown-up version of the popular candy bar with a thick, slightly sweet meringue, almost like an intense gooey marshmallow, and thin wafers of peanut brittle.
We went back again for lunch and were equally impressed with the fare, especially the attention to detail. For instance, the Maryland crab soup—chock full of veggies in a deeply amber, piquant broth—cradled a silver-dollar-sized crab cake on toast as a garnish. And the spinach salad—a mound of delicate baby leaves glimmering with the sheen of bacon-red-wine vinaigrette—had teeny seasoned croutons adding crunch and flavor.
The soup and salad paved the way for our open-faced surf and turf, a power lunch if there ever was one. The petite filet mignon was squiggled with horseradish cream, and the accompanying crab cake—described as "petite" on the menu but actually a healthy round of lump—was dressed with a Creole sauce hinting of Dijon. Both offerings sat on grilled sourdough rounds.
Our tuna grinder with albacore, tomatoes, and melted provolone was also a winner. It was like a fancy tuna melt on a crunchy French baguette. Sandwiches come with chips and a pickle spear.
Afterward, a hostess gave us a tour of the second floor, which wasn't open for afternoon service. The outdoor areas are swank with silver chairs and tables. The bar patio even has couches. She joked that some people say Blue Hill is too fancy for the neighborhood.
We don't think so. We fully expect that the food will put the restaurant and the area on the map. And the friendly service will keep people coming back to the 'hood.