Bluegrass Tavern in South Baltimore may have Southern leanings, but its cuisine is much more refined than plain ol' grits and leaden hushpuppies—though you'll find gussied-up versions of those standbys on the menu. Executive chef Patrick Morrow transforms them by adding aged cheddar to coarse heirloom grits and fashioning his down-home hushpuppies with minced crawfish to be dipped into a smoked-tomato aioli.
You'll also find treats like bacon jam and crostini, ricotta dumplings with asparagus-and-coriander sauce, bison carpaccio, and antelope loin with a Vidalia onion tart and red-eye gravy. There's even a comprehensive bourbon menu.
The irony of the upscale food is that it's served in a typical city corner row house that is more like a casual neighborhood pub than a fancy, hushed, white-cloth restaurant.
Both the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms are connected to lively bars. There are TVs, photos for sale on the walls, and music that, well, rocks. There's nary a country twang in the air, despite its name. There's also a spillover crowd at outdoor tables in warm weather, adding to the party atmosphere.
The ambiance may seem too informal for Morrow's ambitious cuisine, but it works, and the place is usually packed. The greens, blues, and woods of the décor are rich and modern. The servers are friendly and knowledgeable, but there can be timing miscues with the delivery of dishes.
On both of our visits, we got our entrees before we were finished with our starters, leading to an overload of dishes on the table—which also included an adorable cast-iron mini pan of hot cornbread that serves as a first food greeting. There can also be temperature issues if you're sitting on the second floor. The kitchen is on the first level, so some of our food, at one of our meals, either sat too long waiting for delivery or cooled on its way to our table.
But for the most part, our dishes were excellently prepared and presented. The rabbit and beet salad was as delicious as it looked with a round of rabbit loin wrapped in bacon and sharing space with roasted maroon baby beets and foams of goat-cheese mousse. The asparagus salad featured emerald, pencil-sized stalks of the vegetable with a wedge of Camembert that had the tang of blue cheese. A poached egg added a silky bath along with a vinaigrette finished with chopped shallots and ham.
And do give those aforementioned crawfish hushpuppies a nibble (they're great) as well as the veal sweetbread "tots" if you're game. Our waitress was a little worried about us ordering the delectable innards. We had to reassure her that we knew what they were!
We're glad we persevered. The crispy sweetbreads came hot and sultry with sweet-potato tater tots and an earthy truffle remoulade. What a concept. There's a foie-gras preparation of the day, too.
We also explored the grand Southern sampler, and the adjective alluding to greatness is merited. The charcuterie assortment took a successful leap with smoked ham, rabbit pâté, duck speck, a deviled egg, and pickled okra. Not your typical spread.
The menu is divided into "bites"—small, medium, large, and lighter—in addition to cured-meat plates, cheeses, and sides. The lighter section (we're pretty sure it refers to price, not caloric content) includes selections like an eight-ounce burger, a muffuletta, and a daily vegetarian pasta. We chose to delve into some of the large, or entree, portions.
The iced-tea-brined duck breast was a man's-fist-sized portion of medium-rare, tender meat served with a rectangular block of chilled, jellied duck confit that shimmered like savory caramel-hued Jell-O and thick, creamy grits. The pan-roasted rockfish was one of the uneven dishes on our first go-round at the restaurant. On that night, the top of the fillet was warm but lower half was cool to the touch.
The second time we ordered it, all was right with the world. The fish was flaky and warm throughout. The cauliflower "grits" (creamed cauliflower) and pretty pecan romesco sauce added subtle flavoring. A side order of pecan haricots vert gave it a needed veggie boost. Other extras on the menu include spiced mac-n-cheese, shoestring fries, and baby-lettuce salad.
The roasted boneless chicken half was rolled (crackly skin and all) into a log and thickly sliced. The bird was moist and homey with a zesty nudge from a mustard sauce. The brilliant green-bean-and-pea salad was just-picked fresh.
The grilled hanger steak was packed with red-rare beefiness, but the outer blackened charring was too thick, causing the end pieces to be burned and tough. We were quite happy, though, with the fluffy potato purée and pecan haricots vert on the plate.
The made-in-house desserts are deceptively simple. An individual-sized strawberry-rhubarb pie was warm and gooey. The house-made basil vanilla ice cream was a complementary accessory. Its only drawback was that it quickly melted. The banana cream pie tasted just like fresh mashed bananas dribbled with a golden caramel sauce.
We faced a quandary. Did we want the chocolate espresso cake with chocolate chicory sauce and chocolate crumbles or the PB&J, which sounded intriguing: strawberry and peanut-butter Bavarian creams with peanut-butter powder? Our server steered us to the cake—and it was fine, two layers of dense and deeply chocolatey cake with a soft ganache icing.
But we decided that we have to go back for that PB&J—and to also enjoy chef Morrow's food again. Even with a few minor detours, we appreciate his gusto in the kitchen. He's constantly adjusting the menu and switching ingredients.
How can you not appreciate someone who has tacos three ways on the menu: braised oxtails, antelope chorizo, and wild boar al pastor (a North Mexican preparation)? We like a chef who takes us out of our comfort zone.