There was a lot of buzz about B&O American Brasserie before it opened. First, the restaurant was going to be located in swank, refurbished digs once housing the regal B&O railroad headquarters. The chef, E. Michael Reidt, had an impressive pedigree as a Culinary Institute of America grad and one of Food & Wine magazine's "Best New Chefs." And it was going to be next to the new posh Kimpton's Hotel Monaco.
Those are a lot of expectations to fulfill. And for the most part, the restaurant lives up to the hype. The first-floor bar is stunning, with stylish wood furniture and glistening accoutrements. It's already quite the gathering place.
Diners interested in a more intimate experience can head upstairs to the sophisticated dining room with its hushed ambiance and romantic lighting. There are plush black banquettes and seats with oversized wing-chair backs and velvet cushions to create an air of opulence.
The room is set up to afford a certain amount of privacy. But although the bare-wood tables are nicely spaced apart, your neighbors will be in view—which wasn't a good thing on the night we visited. We ended up facing a groping couple, who acted as if they needed a room more than a meal!
But the public display of "affection" (yuck!) didn't deter us from enjoying a meal that may not have been the most adventurous food we've ever had, but certainly showed a kitchen paying attention to creative flavors and seasonal, local foods.
Shrimp cocktail may seem old school, but, here, the five giant shrimp were perched on a bowl holding crisp, fresh slaw and rimmed with cilantro salt. (The chef also used an herb salt with basil to enhance the whipped butter served with a crusty baguette—looking European and jaunty in a paper jacket.) Fresh horseradish and Anaheim chile peppers added a nice zing to the accompanying cocktail sauce.
We also started our meal with cornmeal-crusted oysters, which, while small, got a refreshing boost from diced watermelon. The grilled romaine salad with tangy buttermilk dressing and slivers of Parmesan had all the right smokiness, garlicky flavor, and crunch.
The entrees were artistically arranged. There are three types of steak frites, featuring coulotte, petite filet, and rib-eye cuts. We chose the strip of coulotte (like a hanger steak, our waiter said) and relished its juicy medium rareness. The duck-fat fries in a mesh basket were quite addictive, too.
We don't usually order chicken—we cook with it at home so much. But Murray's farms' free-range chicken was a fat and flavorful half of a bird that was wonderfully appealing, especially over pesto mashed potatoes and baby rounds of summer squash.
We were attracted to the Chesapeake rockfish because it's so Maryland. Unfortunately, on a Tuesday evening, they were out of it and substituted barramundi. We decided to give the dish a try anyway.
The barramundi—caught in Massachusetts, our waiter said—was moist and sweet. It has a denser texture than rockfish but was a suitable replacement. The fish worked well with the smoked-shrimp-and-pea risotto that was tucked in the bowl.
The one item missing from the dishes is a distinctive vegetable. If we had realized that, we probably would have ordered one of the sides, like the garlicky spinach or the cumin-dusted heirloom carrots.
Our waiter, Joe, was covering several tables (including the lusty couple), but he was attentive and knowledgeable about the offerings. He had great fun explaining how the "wicked pissa" cupcake got its name. Chef Reidt is from Boston, he said, and used the regional term that essentially means "really awesome" to describe the two mini chocolate cupcakes with whipped cream and candied peanuts. Desserts are house-made and are more down-home, in a good way, than fancy schmancy.
Our favorite was the rustic apple tart with a delicate crust that came steaming hot in a skillet alongside honey ice cream. The warm cinnamon brioche bread pudding—a generous, thick square with a small dish of chocolate-and-black-pepper ice cream—was fine, too.
There is $5 valet service if you don't want to search for parking in the busy downtown area. We indulged in this nicety again when we returned for lunch—this time sitting in the bar area (thankfully minus the make-out duo). We were impressed that the brasserie was doing a booming noontime trade. The $14 power lunch may be the appeal: a choice of a chicken pesto or burger with duck-fat fries or salad plus just-baked chocolate chip cookies to go.
We weren't in a hurry, so we chose the a la carte route, which gave us an opportunity to try one of the kitchen's flatbreads (aka thin-crust pizzas). The BBQ pork-caramelized onion version was a tantalizing mix of sweet and sour with nice chunks of tender pork, tangy barbecue sauce, onions sweated to a sugary goodness, and silver-dollar dollops of mozzarella cheese. The crisp, foot-long flatbread easily serves two.
We also shared mussel frites, which were simply blissful. Plump, melt-in-your-mouth bivalves were drizzled with a lemon-parsley crème fraiche—a delightful accent for the seafood. And, of course, they came with those salty, wonderful fries that are paired with many dishes here.
We also appreciated the nice-sized cheeseburger, cooked the designated medium rare and housed in a sturdy brioche—though we were dismayed that it just came with lettuce and tomato.
The B&O American Brasserie seems poised to deliver well-thought out meals for locals and travelers alike in this stunningly beautiful dining space. As the chef tweaks the menu offerings for the seasons, we're looking forward to his interpretations throughout the year.