The times they are a-changin'. For years, we listed the best restaurants alphabetically. Then, two years ago, we decided to go out on a limb and rank the top 50. Now, we're mixing it up again. We divided the restaurants into categories and rated them within their specific divisions. It made sense. We'd be comparing apples to apples, not pitting, say, Charleston against The Helmand or Woodberry Kitchen against Aldo's. Those restaurants (and the other 63 on our list) are certainly among the best, but they are very different.
We ended up with eight categories: fine dining, New American, seafood, urban gourmet, Italian, foreign affairs, tapas, and wine bars. Also in these pages, we talked to several local celebs about the best thing they ever ate in Baltimore. (You'll never guess Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher's favorite food.) We also picked six chefs to watch. Who knows? One of them may be the next Cindy Wolf or Spike Gjerde. And Senior Editor Suzanne Loudermilk shares a personal restaurant-reviewing experience.
Now it's time to take a look at the rankings. We think you'll agree that we've made them more user-friendly than ever.
The places for special occasions
1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373, www.charlestonrestaurant.com
There’s one thing we can pretty much guarantee about a meal at Charleston: You won’t be bringing home leftovers. It’s not just the carefully calibrated portions of chef Cindy Wolf’s exacting plates. It’s the way a nibble of, say, a sweet scallop seduces you to another bite with its swirl of porcini mushroom sauce and a sprinkling of English peas, or the way slivers of pan-roasted veal tenderloin and lobster medallions dissolve in your mouth, perfectly married to their vermouth-infused chicken-and-veal stock reduction. The two or three elements in each dish are chosen with such care that you’re inclined to try them separately, then together, and once again, to savor each texture and taste. You’ll jealously guard your plate against predatory forks, relenting only when your dining partner is willing to offer up a morsel in trade. Wolf’s reputation extends beyond Baltimore, and her cooking—which has been described as “low country”—elevates locally sourced foodstuffs to heights of grandeur.
2. Antrim 1844
30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 410-756-6812, www.antrim1844.com
Antrim takes its reputation for “destination dining” seriously, offering tempting deals for its prix-fixe dinner combined with a room on the grounds of this 19th-century former plantation. Whether you choose to stay the night or not, you’ll want to savor the six courses served by an enthusiastic staff. The menu, which changes nightly, may include appetizers like a creamy butternut-squash soup with crumbled feta, Parmesan-crusted oysters with hominy and bacon, and a “Napoleon” of celery-root remoulade layered with dollops of chèvre. Along with the Black Angus filet with red-wine demi-glace and wild mushrooms, and wild rockfish with crab, we recently found an unexpected vegan offering—eggplant roulade with asparagus and chickpea coulis. Diners start with hors d’oeuvres passed in the elegant parlor, with its high ceilings and antique rugs, and then move on to the dining area, which occupies the mansion’s original kitchen and smokehouse. The brick floors and open fireplaces still remain, but the modern-day chairs are upholstered in soft leather, designed for lingering.
3. The Prime Rib
1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804, www.theprimerib.com
Even in these tough times, the iconic Prime Rib is worth the splurge when you’re in a celebratory mood—and if you’re not, an evening here will surely have you feeling flush. With its dramatic black walls lined with spot-lit paintings, its leopard print carpets, and that baby grand with the neon glow, PR is the perfect place to get your swank on. Dive into a crab imperial piled high with all lump, indulge in a buttery mound of mashed potatoes, and swim in a bread pudding soaked with bourbon. Oh, and, of course, savor that pillowy pink slab of the eponymous meat. It’s all deliriously indulgent, and the wait staff will make you feel like a pampered pasha.
4. Kali’s Court
1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700, www.kaliscourt.com
What better place for first-daters and long-time lovers than this romantic Mediterranean hotspot, where the dining room is dark and dramatically lit, and the mostly seafood menu is so lushly seductive? A plate of briny raw oysters and a trio of perfectly smoked fish (salmon, bluefish, and trout) are just the starters to spark amorous feelings, and an entree of fabulous firm-fleshed wild halibut in an exotic green-curry coconut sauce is the kind of decadently delicious dish best shared with someone you love. Flavors are subtle, complex, and perfectly matched (just like the best relationships), and the wine list is swoon-worthy. Just to make sure your dinner a deux has a happy ending, share the chocolate-chunk crème brûlée, honed to creamy perfection.
25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030, www.linwoods.com
Chef/owner Linwood Dame’s high standards for well-prepared food and stellar service haven’t fallen by the wayside after more than 20 years. In fact, the restaurant seems to get even better with age. We always appreciate that the fresh Maine lobster is bright, beautiful, and succulent—and that the staff does the work of removing the juicy meat for you if you prefer. We also like that you can count on a grilled beef tenderloin that cuts like butter, and crab cakes that are as big as lacrosse balls. The posh environs with rich woods and white tablecloths add specialness to the evening, even if you’re tucking into one of the restaurant’s wood-burning-oven pizzas or comfort foods like roasted chicken or a burger. Desserts are showy and delectable—the Linwoods ice-cream sandwich, for instance—but you won’t go wrong with an old-fashioned chocolate sundae, right down to the last delicious, gooey spoonful.
6. The Oregon Grille
1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505, www.theoregongrille.com
The Oregon Grille invites diners to relax in a hunt-club atmosphere and indulge in the sumptuous menu. An aura of richness permeates the restaurant, from the polished saddlery on the walls to the burnished wood details. The menu at the Grille centers around meats in a steakhouse sort of way, but there are plenty of seafood choices as well. We love slurping down a plate of the grilled oysters, a half-dozen succulent bivalves that are cooked to juicy perfection and served with lemon butter. Since beef is a big deal here, go for the steak au poivre—an enormous slab of New York strip that arrives grilled to order and crusted in deeply flavorful crushed peppercorns. Service at the The Oregon Grille is exemplary, and we were impressed by our server’s knowledge of both the menu and the formidable wine list. A pity, then, that the diminutive tables for two at the front of the house are just too small to hold entrees, proper stemware, and a decanter at the same time.
7. The Milton Inn
14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366, www.miltoninn.com
This Baltimore County mainstay woos diners with its historic rooms, impeccable table settings, polished service, and haute menu. Its modern-day take on classic dishes is brilliant. A grilled pork chop is eased into the 21st century with a cranberry-apple compote and squash polenta; a simple roasted chicken is made au courant with a shiitake-prosciutto-Madeira sauce. Some dishes—like the cobb salad, French onion soup, and oysters Rockefeller—are fine just the way they are. The Milton Inn offers that sweet spot of comfort and consistency that we like so much.
Masters of contemporary cooking
1. Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Road, 410-464-8000, www.woodberrykitchen.com
Woodberry Kitchen quickly became a leader among local restaurants embracing the farm-to-table movement—and if the stream of patrons is any indication, it’s succeeding quite well in its mission. Chef/co-owner Spike Gjerde’s offerings are seasonal and always expertly cooked with just the right seasonings. The aptly named “Various Beets” accomplishes just that with glistening nuggets in assorted autumnal hues emanating sweetness and fresh soil, and set off perfectly with a mild-mannered vinaigrette and toasted pecans. The complex, comforting, smoldering venison chili is just gamey enough to be compelling and pleasing, while the impressively succulent Truck Patch Farms pork chop needs only the simplest adornment and a deft hand at the grill to showcase its inherent deliciousness. The food fits the setting in the restored mill, rich with rustic wood and urban brick. The homesteader, über-retro theme pervades the bar and dessert menu as well, with a Prairie Organic Vodka cocktail served in a copper mug and almost anachronistic treats like homemade chocolate pudding. Reservations are an absolute must.
2. B&O American Brasserie
2 N. Charles Street, 443-692-6172, www.bandorestaurant.com
B&O, housed in the exquisitely repurposed railroad headquarters now occupied by the Kimpton-owned Hotel Monaco, seems to epitomize the maxim, “Everything old is new again.” Its darkish interior with tufted leather banquettes, its cocktails—featuring house-made cola and such classic spirits as bourbon and rye—and its nightly specials like pork chops with applesauce and fried chicken may summon an era of train barons and fat cigars. But any reverence for the past here is tweaked for palates that prefer pot roast sous vide, pureed celeriac, and knowing the source of the steak. Chef Michael Reidt, a New Englander who made the place his own with local and seasonal dishes—rabbit three ways with kale-smoked almond pesto and bison carpaccio with pickled quail egg—has flown south to another Kimpton restaurant in Miami. A new chef, Thomas Dunklin (see our “Chefs to Watch,” at left), has taken over the helm and will introduce a new menu this spring. We’re expecting the creative surge to continue.
3. Blue Hill Tavern
938 S. Conkling Street, 443-388-9363, www.bluehilltavern.com
Blue Hill Tavern has obviously won local hearts, because this see-and-be-seen corner of Canton is always bustling. Disregard the plug-ugly California strip-mall exterior and the fact that the place is enormous. Inside, the owners have somehow carved out spaces that manage to be both stunningly beautiful and intimate. And the menu is smart—sophisticated enough for these digs, but appealing to less adventurous eaters nonetheless. For example, you’ll find gussied-up versions of old favorites like crab dip, enlivened with chive béchamel sauce and salted cod gratinée, or a comforting osso buco, where the veal shows up in a base of root-vegetable jus and the main meat is bison. House-infused vodkas and a wine list with 10 picks for under $25 contribute to the feel-good vibe along with the enthusiastic wait staff.
4. The Dogwood
911 W. 36th Street, 410-889-095, www.dogwoodbaltimore.com
A word of advice: Do not fill up on the bread, though you will be tempted to. The table loaf is a deeply nutty, slightly sweet Irish brown and comes with butter laced with mango chutney—needless to say, an irresistible combination. Then, there are the starters: impossibly delicate gougères (gossamer poofs of pastry with Gruyère) and a delectable roasted whole garlic head, from which one pops out aromatic, bronzed cloves, and which is served with fruity olive oil and, yes, more bread. And it only gets better with seasonal and, when possible, locally sourced ingredients. The creative combinations are influenced by Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines and yet still maintain a core of regional familiarity with such dishes as lamb borek with spiced meat in phyllo with local lettuces, and forbidden rice and roasted butternut-squash curry. Pacing yourself during the meal pays off when it’s time to delve into Dogwood’s excellent dessert offerings. We especially like the carrot cake, chocolate pot de crème, and rotating selection of locally made Taharka Brothers ice cream.
2400 Boston Street, 410-534-3287, www.langermanns.com
The cavernous space may seem intimidating at first, but once you settle into one of the cozy banquettes or comfortable tables and quell your hunger with honey-glazed cornbread and flaky biscuits, you’ll feel nurtured and at home. Chef/owner Neal Langermann turns up the dial on Southern-influenced comfort foods like shrimp and grits, fried catfish fingers, and Carolina gumbo. Attentive plating, fresh herb garnishes, and thoughtful preparations result in carefully designed dishes that look as delicious as they are. Even a roasted half chicken with fluffy mashed potatoes and gravy, and a grilled salmon with corn-and-edamame succotash surpass their humble origins. Desserts are homemade—and you certainly don’t want to pass up the wicked bourbon bread pudding.
6. Meli American Bistro
1636 Thames Street, 410-534-6354, www.kalismeli.com
If we could change anything about Meli, it would be the entrance, where you practically walk into a pastry case before veering left into a welcoming bar and elegant dining room designed by Rita St. Clair. But that’s a small quibble. Once you’re seated, this Kali Restaurant Group venue offers guests congenial service and an always-pleasing meal by chef Rashad Edwards, whose talents extend to sister restaurant and neighbor Tapas Adela. The ingredient honey plays a big part in Meli’s menu. (After all, that’s what Meli means in Greek.) Don’t be put off. Its appearance in dishes like the seared diver scallops appetizer, lavender-honey-glazed salmon, and duo of duck is so subtle that you can enjoy its sweet charms without being overwhelmed. One of our favorite dishes on a recent visit was the potato gnocchi starter—a bowlful of tender gnocchi, roasted butternut squash, broccolini, and mushrooms in honey-sage butter with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, that’s the perfect beginning to a long-lasting relationship.
7. Mr. Rain’s Fun House
800 Key Highway, American Visionary Art Museum, 443-524-7379, www.mrrainsfunhouse.com
Hooray! When the way-too-long dark restaurant space in AVAM was finally filled last November, we cheered—all the more so because, since its inception, the improbably but aptly named Mr. Rain’s Fun House clearly aimed to match the carnivalesque, luminously original spirit of the museum that houses it. Shiny, pretty, sparkly things gild the sleek modern décor—mosaic animal heads, a gorgeously over-the-top mirror wall hanging over the bar, a pop-arty orange-and-pink starburst painting—and the eclectic, worldly menu is equally inspired. Asian appetizers like fat, crispy chicken-filled lumpia and sparkling fresh tuna poke are on offer alongside items like roasted beef marrow with sage and lush kabocha pumpkin soup. The adobo-braised pork shank is pure Latin American comfort food. Zip across the South Atlantic for soul-satisfying East African spiced chicken with black-eyed peas and then back again for dessert, a very fine, moist version of tres leches cake. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic wait staff will guide you through the global offerings as well as the equally international wine list. At the end of the night, you’ll feel as festive as the surroundings and pleasantly sated to boot. Let Mr. Rain reign forever!
510 E. Belvedere Avenue, 443-278-9001, www.crush-restaurant.com
Lucky Belvedere Square to have a neighborhood restaurant like this: hip but friendly, bright enough to feel casual, but with food that’s fine enough to impress a date. On a recent visit, we loved the homey shrimp-and-grits appetizer studded with andouille sausage and applewood smoked bacon, which, with a salad, could easily make a meal. Entrees are mostly standard fare (roast chicken, beef filet, crab cakes) prepared with attention to detail and little twists that make the difference between ho-hum and wow: a monster veal chop gets the sous-vide treatment; a New York strip comes with hand-cut truffled fries. The youthful servers are quick and cheerful, and they know the annotated wine list well, happy to point out a new bargain or suggest an interesting pairing—after all, the restaurant’s name refers to what happens to grapes come harvest time. Such a winning combination of elements can make for crowds, especially on the weekend, but the atmosphere is so lovely and lively, we don’t mind a bit.
9. The Brewer’s Art
1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9310, www.belgianbeer.com
Though the main draw here may seem like beer, Brewer’s has always maintained a reputation for food that far surpasses the “bar” label. There is a separate menu available only to bar and lounge guests (the proper dining room is in the rear of the second floor) with sophisticated sandwiches and sausage and cheese plates. But the kitchen has much loftier horizons with dishes like the crunchy, sweet, and utterly addictive General Tso’s sweetbreads and a Kobe pot roast with parsnip purée in a Pinot Noir sauce. Lesser beers may seem outclassed by the lush food, but, hey, this is Brewer’s Art, and its Resurrection ale is just a tap’s pull away.
10. Restaurant Sabor
12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville, 410-628-7227, www.restaurantsabor.com
With polished wood floors, fabric-covered walls, and dark bare tables, Sabor is unpretentious and handsome. An expanse of glass exposing the kitchen is a beacon of light, illuminating the dining room while inviting patrons to observe—which they do—as these window seats fill up quickly. Chef Roddy Domacasse often works the room, greeting and checking on diners. But it’s his food that gets your attention. Escargots, sans shells, are rich and classically earthy; the skirt steak churasscas, accompanied by crisp frites, is worthy bistro fare; and the local rockfish is cooked to that state of doneness that has the center barely translucent—not an easy task. Service is professional and unhurried. Sabor is BYOB, and there’s only a one-time corking fee of $5 per table. Nice.
11. Tark’s Grill
2360 W. Joppa Road, Green Spring Station, 410-583-8275, www.tarksgrill.com
Tark’s has broken the jinx at this upscale locale that saw several restaurants come and go. Now, the Baltimore County bistro keeps bringing in the Valley boys and girls for the fun camaraderie and consistently prepared cuisine. Everyone’s having a good time as they decide whether to order casual fare like a burger or salad or entrees ranging from pastas and fish to filet mignon. On our last visit, we found the grilled rockfish to be uncomplicated but innovative, draped over an antipasto salad with threads of pesto and a shimmer of truffled beurre blanc on the plate. The kitchen thankfully doesn’t mess with the meatloaf made from ground Angus beef, veal, and pork, nestled next to a mountain of mashed potatoes and your choice of another side. (We liked the steamed green beans.) Desserts may be the biggest surprise here. The warm cinnamon milk cake and coconut pound cake deserve your attention. Do indulge!
The freshest offerings in town
1. The Black Olive
814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141, www.theblackolive.com
Yes, it’s pricey, but who else but The Black Olive gives you fresh Dover sole on a regular basis and a picturesque fish case full of other offerings, while also serving slow braised lamb shank that practically melts into the accompanying tomato-soaked couscous? And who else has put the time and, importantly, the dollars into an extensive collection of the world’s finest wines to pair with such succulence? That’s what makes The Black Olive one of our perennial favorites; if you have the coin and care deeply about a first-rate food-and-wine experience, this place will transport you. It represents Greek-influenced food at its zenith, in a spare, cheery atmosphere that does nothing to distract your focus from what’s on your plate—and in your glass. On our last visit, we were particularly pleased to see legendary maître d’hôtel Marc Dettori (Harbor Court, Petit Louis, Brasserie Tatin). His inextinguishable enthusiasm sets the tone for an unforgettable meal at this Baltimore stalwart.
2. The Oceanaire Seafood Room
801 Aliceanna Street, 443-872-0000, www.theoceanaire.com
The Oceanaire is designed to remind you of an ocean liner: oversized, expensive, and seemingly of another era. It’s easy to check the 21st century at the door as you settle into an intimate, red-leather-upholstered teak banquette and begin your meal with a steamy platter of mussels from Prince Edward Island, delicately steamed in wine and garlic, or a bevy of escargots, rich and buttery, wrapped in puff pastry—and end it with a flaming baked Alaska. A visit to The Oceanaire ensures not only consistently polished décor and service, but also an extraordinary selection of fresh fish: lobster from the North Atlantic, salmon from Scotland, Idaho rainbow trout, and mahi mahi from Costa Rica. There’s an extensive wine list, with moderately priced bottles, or you can be extravagant and ask for a peek at the captain’s reserve collection.
3. O’Learys Seafood Restaurant
310 Third Street, Annapolis, 410-263-0884, www.olearys-seafood.com
Tucked in the nautical Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, O’Learys is a spot locals might choose to celebrate an anniversary or birthday, packed at a long table beneath walls decorated with the colorful paintings by owner Paul Meyer. The interior hints of a yacht’s galley, with its polished wood bar mimicking the curve of a prow, brass railings, and purse hooks reminiscent of the fittings on a boat. A seat by the window affords a view of the boat slips where Third Street meets the water. Portions are generous, and the chef doesn’t hold back when it comes to ingredients. The lobster “cappuccino,” for instance, is served in an oversized glass with a swirl of velouté on top and a spoonful of lobster ceviche on the side. The Australian barramundi, an otherwise simple white fish, is sautéed in dry sherry and butter along with capers, artichokes, and roasted red peppers, and served with basmati rice. And the fettuccine Alfredo is creamy-rich, piled with scallops and crab. The nicely edited wine list keeps most bottles affordable. Revelry has never been easier.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, 410-889-3399, www.gertrudesbaltimore.com
Occupying the attractive space between the museum proper and the outdoor sculpture garden, Gertrude’s seems to have found the winning formula for the often-tricky museum/restaurant partnership. Chef John Shields is well-known for promoting and popularizing traditional Chesapeake fare, and these dishes come off without a hitch, like the single-fry oysters—plump bivalves whose juices burst out of their crisp cornmeal jackets with each bite—and the Mrs. Tawes crab cake, perfectly golden on the surface with sweet, domestic crab within. The latter is a rotating “crab cake du jour,” but Shields’s grandma Gertie’s recipe is available every day. The menu also has an Asian influence with offerings like a five-spice chicken scented with ginger and lemongrass and a Southeast Asian-style coconut-milk-based curry. Diners can also get creative with the “Build Your Own” section of the menu, where they match up a protein (crab cake, fish, chicken breast, or sirloin steak) with one of several sauces and sides. The possibilities seem endless.
5. Catonsville Gourmet
829 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-788-0005, www.catonsvillegourmet.com
On a recent Sunday night, this family-friendly seafood restaurant was a beacon of comfort and good cheer. Kids frolicked in the big back room, where a seafood market displaying sparkling fresh fish kept company with large parties at long tables, just like a picnic on a summer day. The dining rooms up front, with their old-fashioned, seaside cottage-y feel, were filled to the brim with boisterous diners poring over giant menus. The food is mostly simple stuff, but the array of treasures from the deep is gratifying: crab (of course) prepared every which way; mussels, shrimp, scallops, clams, and oysters, both raw and cooked (there’s even something called a St. Mary’s oyster salad); and lots of fish, from rainbow trout to sea bass to halibut, made to order with the sauce of your choice. Landlubbers need not despair; this menu is capacious enough to embrace both rib-eye and a pastrami sandwich. Just be sure to bring your own bottle (corkage fee is $5), and do not pass up the desserts—some made by nearby SugarBakers bakery. That often over-hyped regional special, Smith Island cake, is superlative here, as is the classic crème brûlée. Almost better than a trip to the beach.
Low-key city settings with high-end food
2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480, www.salttavern.com
When it opened in 2006 (yes, it really has been that long), Salt made waves with its bold menu, taking familiar favorites and refitting them with luxe ingredients and international influences. At the mention of Salt, many still reference the now iconic foie-gras and Kobe beef sliders and duck-fat fries, but we prefer to extol the general maturing of the kitchen, which serves a concise list of well-executed and imaginative dishes every time. Its location smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood could be a liability, but it’s this consistency that makes it a hub for locals, as well as a destination spot for out-of-towners. The menu is seasonal, and, during the colder months, focused on hearty dishes like veal cheeks braised to succulence in port with pancetta, sage, and a fig demi-glace—which sounds straightforward, but nonetheless delivers a spectrum of flavors and textures in each bite. Starters like a ceviche with fluke and Meyer lemon, and steamed buns with pork confit and kimchi Brussels sprouts display the culinary confidence that put Salt on the map in the first place.
2. Peter’s Inn
504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313, www.petersinn.com
The phrase “raising the bar” popped into our heads recently as we sat in the warmth of Peter’s Inn on a blustery night, grazing on fried oysters with béarnaise sauce, creamy risotto with butternut and sage, and a plate of seared day-boat scallops with lentils while sipping a smooth Pinot Noir in glasses with just the right heft. We appreciated the bartender who took a sincere interest in setting us up with a nice meal on an evening when the dining room was too packed to accommodate table seating. While Fells Point is teeming with options for drinking and eating, Peter’s Inn stands out in ways that evade classification. It could be its previous incarnation as a biker bar and the comfort that longtime patrons still find here (yes, the diverse crowd makes for a fun night)—or the beadboard-paneled interior, packed with artwork, ranging from homey to kitsch. The menu changes weekly, but that’s the only thing we want to see change.
3. The Chameleon
4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376, www.thechameleoncafe.com
When Jeff Smith opened The Chameleon in 2001, he was a pioneer in more than his choice of neighborhood. His healthy servings of French-influenced (read: spare no fat) dishes that adhered to seasonal offerings seemed a departure from the pristine plates of global fusion so popular at the time. Smith hasn’t slowed down. Portions are still hearty and cleave to the seasons. Each plate is piled with customized sides that may just upstage the entree. A baked blue fish comes with chilled shrimp salad, warm potato salad splattered with mustard seeds, and crisp sautéed green beans. A whole roasted quail has a dense sausage-and-onion bread pudding and buttery Brussels sprouts, and the grilled steak is accompanied by a Southwest-style soufflé filled with corn, red peppers, and roasted tomatoes. The restaurant has become a fixture in the Lauraville-Hamilton neighborhood and resonates with those who live around the corner, or travel from the other side of town.
4. Bluegrass Tavern
1500 S. Hanover Street, 410-244-5101, www.bluegrasstavern.com
This narrow Fed Hill townhouse is all about down-home-but-hip fun, from its lineup of boutique bourbons to the rough-hewn coziness (in a Pottery Barn sort of way) of the always crowded dining room, where warm woods are trimmed in cool-blue wainscoting and the atmosphere is distinctly casual. But there’s nothing casual about chef Patrick Morrow’s Southern-tinged food, which boasts locavore ingredients in upscale versions of traditional favorites. Sample a good “medium bite” of Piedmont Ridge beef ragù—short ribs and oxtails over porcini papardelle—and then try somehow to make room for a “large bite” of sous-vide Moulard duck a la blood orange with truffled turnip purée. Clearly, if you’re a member of the fat police, you’ll have to check your badge at the door—Morrow’s idea of a “lighter bite” is shrimp and grits in ambrosial étouffée. And don’t even think about skipping dessert. The cleverly conceived and stunningly scrumptious “carrot two ways” (a marvelous duo of cake and crème caramel) is one of the sweetest sweets we’ve had all year.
1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600, www.b-bistro.com
B’s airy space and effervescent conviviality invite diners to relax and add their own cacophonous exchanges to the laughter and conversations already swirling around the place. B serves up serious food, though, featuring starters like a charcuterie plate lapped with esoteric cured meats or roasted forest mushrooms. On a recent visit, the chilly weather outside was dispelled by the duck ravioli—plump pillows of pasta filled with roasted duck and finished in a savory sauce. We also enjoyed the lamb gnocchi, appreciating that they were made in-house. Desserts are no afterthought, and we polished off a rich chocolate pot de crème along with an excellent shot of espresso. Wine enthusiasts should take note of b’s adventurous and reasonably priced list.
5402 Harford Road, 410-444-1497, www.bmoreclementine.com
Chef/owner Winston Blick’s love of all things meat is in evidence wherever you look. The chef’s charcuterie den, with aging sausages and pork haunches, is visible through a window in the back of the restaurant. And the mounted deer heads and antlers on the cranberry-colored walls of the main dining room are affectionately un-PC. But if meat isn’t your thing, fear not. The menu has a nice mix from the sea and garden as well. And preparations—even on a single plate—jump from East to West. A thick-sliced duck breast, cooked to a rosy rare, is drizzled with a glaze of tamarind and ginger sauce, with a side of mashed potatoes oozing smoked Gouda. Quail is stuffed with crab and corn, and a local rockfish is served with a tangy Asian-inspired risotto and bamboo-shoot salad. If there’s a theme here, it’s Blick’s respect for ingredients, and his commitment to sourcing them as locally as possible. In fact, for dessert, he looks no further than his own Mom, whose maple pie is smooth and custardy in a plain homemade crust and whose yellow cake with boiled chocolate frosting with a layer of peanut-butter cream may remind you of your favorite birthday cake.
7. Jack’s Bistro
3123 Elliott Street, 410-878-6542, www.jacksbistro.net
You’ve got to hand it to Jack’s chef/owner Ted Stelzenmuller. Only a guy with the temerity to mix dark Colombian chocolate with mac ’n’ cheese would think of making a burger out of ground-up bacon. This unorthodox variation on a BLT is topped with arugula, tomatoes, and ranch dressing. Stelzenmuller likes to keep diners on their toes and loves a clever food witticism. His menu can veer wildly from a “Meat Bloody Mary” appetizer of sliced filet with tomatoes, horseradish, and celery to a Panang-style mussel salad; from a sous-vide pork chop with apple-bourbon demi-glace and fennel pollen to a straight-up crab cake with fingerling potatoes. The food is a good match for the décor, which mixes old-time waterfront bar with futuristic mid-century graphics. But you don’t have to dig deep to find method in the madness here: The food, be it whimsical, extravagant or homey, is always fresh and expertly prepared.
1026 S. Charles Street, 410-752-3810, www.corksrestaurant.com
Since last we visited chef-owner and all-around local bon vivant Jerry Pellegrino’s haven for wine lovers, the back dining room has gotten cozier, the menu more compact, and the bargains more plentiful. You’ll find Pellegrino himself manning the kitchen up front, carefully overseeing the robust, richly flavored, straight-ahead American food meant to stand up to an authoritative American vintage. That cuisine includes favorites like a hearty truffle-speckled Black Angus meatloaf and a flavor-packed, lemon-scented roast chicken; the bargains include half-priced steak nights Sundays through Thursdays. Yes, you read that right—and on Tuesdays, everything on the wine list is half price. Add these phenomenal deals to a highly trained and knowledgeable wait staff to guide you, and you’ve got an oenophile’s paradise that even teetotalers will love.
9. Henninger’s Tavern
1812 Bank Street, 410-342-2172, www.henningerstavern.com
The twinkling lights alert you to the row house restaurant along the mostly residential block. Now, all you have to do is find a parking spot. Don’t give up. The casual, careworn vibe at Henninger’s is worth the hunt. It’s the kind of place where a tattooed waitress in a blue June Cleaver apron plops into a chair next to you to discuss a sports game before jumping up to tend to her duties in the narrow dining room filled with an eclectic assortment of “artwork”—from a painting of The Last Supper and a drawing of a gorilla face to several pink-elephant mobiles. But you can count on the kitchen to take its food seriously with offerings like pan-fried oysters over braised spinach with Pernod and fennel cream, stout-braised short ribs with mashed potatoes, and a grouper fillet with lump crab, Yukon-gold-potato hash, and haricots vert. Order Key lime pie, and you may get two thumbs up from a neighboring table like we did!
10. The Point in Fells
1738 Thames Street, 410-327-7264, www.thepointinfells.com
Upon entering The Point, one discovers a case of split personality. Tasteful dark-wood accents, exposed brick, and soft lighting confirm that you’ve arrived at a place that considers itself more than just another watering hole, but the flat screens . . . oh, the flat screens. We suppose there are occasions when one would want fine dining and sports TV at the same time, so we’ll roll with it. Easy to do when one is presented with succulent slices of scallop in a deconstructed ceviche with morsels of ruby grapefruit, a dash of spice, and the surprise crunch of macadamia nuts. Or a super fresh fillet of rainbow trout perched atop a mound of pearled barley risotto and drenched in tomato beurre blanc. Bigger appetites will appreciate the substantial beer-braised short rib with roasted cippiolini onion. We were also pleased with the selection of draft beers available. Sure, you can eat upstairs in the more formal dining room, but we like that you can get upscale food in a comfortably dress-down atmosphere with the game on overhead. Sounds like a winning combination to us.
11. City Cafe
1001 Cathedral Street, 410-539-4252, www.citycafebaltimore.com
This sleek, multilevel space reverberates with energy and noisy conversations. While it may not be the quietest restaurant in town, it has executive chef Chad Gauss in the kitchen delivering creative dishes to go along with its lively atmosphere. Spicy crab meatballs, fried green tomatoes with lemon beurre blanc, massive bowls of calamari and banana peppers, all come from a chef who wants your attention. Gauss’s bison pot roast is dutifully braised and rich with aromatics, creating a mix of interesting flavors. The “Cafe Threeo” dessert is a fine finish with a sampling of vanilla-laced bread pudding, a miniature crème brûlée, and a square of chocolate torte! The name may be generic, but the restaurant is anything but.
12. Pierpoint Restaurant
1822 Aliceanna Street, 410-675-2080, www.pierpointrestaurant.com
The restaurant’s famous smoked crab cakes are still available and are still quite good. But the menu has branched out with seasonal and regional offerings, nicely balanced with meat, game, and seafood. It takes its cues from updated versions of Maryland favorites and also has a decidedly Asian tone. The Baltimore Box is a must-order starter with the aforementioned cakes, crisp cornmeal-fried oysters, smoky-sweet clams casino, and a refined incarnation of the coddie (a cod cake). The menu is riddled with fusion-y mashups: a starter of pumpkin “Pier”-ogies (wonton wrappers encasing a sweetish filling); a fat rockfish fillet with a mound of gnocchi and doused with a healthy shot of fragrant white truffle oil; and impeccably fresh diver scallops, seared to a burnish, with a subtle Gorgonzola sauce. The wine list is tight, interesting, and ever-changing, and chef/owner Nancy Longo is usually around to lend a guiding hand.
Our most popular cuisine at its finest.
822 Lancaster Street, 410-547-8282, cgeno.com
Seldom does a restaurant marry its ambiance and food as well as this Harbor East venue. The architecturally sophisticated and flat-out gorgeous dining rooms (there are two: the more casual enoteca and formal osteria) evoke urbane structures dotting the landscapes of most northern Italian cities. This is cucina Italia at its finest. Start out with appetizers like the excellent prosciutto de Parma or the wild-mushroom bruschetta. For entrees, the spaghetti with truffles is exquisite in its simplicity. The pasta is tossed with Parmigiano and a generous amount of fresh black truffles. Executive chef Julian Marucci also excels with dishes like the pan-roasted venison saddle, prepared perfectly rare, with black-trumpet mushrooms and chestnuts. Whether you sit in one of the dining rooms with a full-course entree or at the regal bar with a well-prepared drink and antipasti from the bountiful salumi station, you'll be treated like a very welcome guest here. Deals like half-price bottles of wine in the enoteca on Tuesdays and a three-course $29 supper seven days a week sweeten the pot.
2. Sotto Sopra
405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534, sottosoprainc.com
One of the things we really like about this sophisticated restaurant—with its bright murals, tile floor, and expansive mirrors—is its updated treatment of old standbys. Traditional offerings are given flourish with ingredients like truffle oil, applewood-smoked bacon, and caper aioli but keep their rustic flavor roots. For instance, osso bucco—with its ethereal braise of veal shank meat—is homey yet elevated over creamy risotto. Even the special grilled fish—a Mediterranean orata—with its head intact, thank you, is simply grilled, leaving a crisp skin and moist interior. But it's more than that. An artistically strewn lemon confit gently permeates the dish, taking it to another level. Not everything is perfect. Arugula can overpower the gentle octopus starter, and the "assorted" trio of bruschetta was just one kind on a recent visit. But it's easy to overlook tiny lapses, especially when you finish with a fabulous mascarpone cheesecake that has you craving seconds.
3. Trattoria Alberto
1660 Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922, trattoriaalberto.com
When a yen for pasta strikes, Glen Burnie is probably not on your short list of destinations. But you might want to reconsider your choices. Hidden in a nondescript strip mall, Trattoria Alberto has been serving astoundingly good homemade pasta and traditional Italian dishes for a quarter of a century. The grilled calamari is a paragon of simple preparation, quality ingredients, and expert execution—olive oil and lemon juice are precisely balanced and the squid grilled just enough to impart a kiss of smoke and crust and to render it perfectly tender. Entrees follow suit with favorites like osso buco and other well-prepared meats and seafood. Pappardelle Ammiraglia combines clams, shrimp, and house-made pasta into a resilient, smooth mix enveloped in a flavorful sauce redolent of shellfish and white wine. Service is prompt and congenial, and live music is featured on weekends. It's more than worth the trek.
306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700, aldositaly.com
Diners here usually go for appetizers like the lump-crab cocktail, shrimp with lobster-infused mashed potatoes, or the famed lobster risotto deglazed with Highland Scotch. Aldo's is that kind of place. The soaring ceilings and graceful columns, architectural prints and framed tapestries on the walls, and the tinkling of a piano in the background signal celebration—though you don't need a special occasion to enjoy Aldo's. On a recent visit, we settled in with a bagna-cauda appetizer—or "hot bath"—a traditional Italian fondue-like sauce made with garlic and anchovies, served warm, for dipping leaves of lettuce or fresh vegetables. Dressed up with a polenta cake, the dish is an indication that chef/owner Aldo Vitale likes to mix up his over-the-top delicacies—like tournedoes of beef with seared foie gras and black-truffle sauce, osso bucco with mushroom risotto, and timballo, a layered pasta dish, with bolognese sauce. Desserts are also true to tradition, including a goblet of fresh strawberries doused in a heady Marsala-infused zabaglione.
3547 Chestnut Avenue, 443-438-7521, granopastabar.com
Gino Troia took the successful formula of his smaller pasta bar around the corner on The Avenue in Hampden and upgraded it with a liquor license (featuring reasonably priced bottles of wine), a more extensive menu (with somewhat higher prices), and the chance to sit at an actual table in a setting that feels like an inviting farmhouse, rather than elbow-to-elbow at a cramped counter. The neighborhood friendliness hasn't been lost—the chef greets guests like he's known them forever, and you can order a Caesar salad served family style for the table. The kitchen matches pastas to toppings, but you're welcome to switch out the choices, opting for, say, papardelle instead of penne. Specials may be trout with capers, grilled veal chops, or linguine Santa Lucia with a spicy tomato sauce and shrimp, but they remain straightforward. Save room for desserts like the super-sized tiramisu, resting in a pool of
6. Osteria 177
177 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-267-7700, osteria177.com
From the rich mahogany paneling to the solicitous service and, most of all, the luxurious Italian specialties, Osteria 177 is a dignified refuge and balm for the harried soul. Dip that good, warm Tuscan bread in the heavenly wine-and-tomato sauce that bathes a starter of clams and mussels, and savor the perfect al-dente texture of garlicky grilled calamari over greens. Marvel at the earthy fresh porcini that grace a mammoth but tender veal chop, and don't miss the perfect little pear-and-gorgonzola stuffed "sacchetti" of pasta. It's clear that the food here is prepared with loving care, but you'll also find a heavy-hitting (if expensive) wine list and a very knowledgeable sommelier to guide you through it. And lovers of Italian desserts will be thrilled to find standouts like tartuffo, zabaglione, and panna cotta among the selections. At Osteria 177, you'll think you died and went to . . . Rome.
7. Café Troia
31 W. Allegheny Avenue, Towson, 410-337-0133, cafetroia.com
Naturally, we wondered how a move—right across the street—to larger digs and an expanded menu would affect our longtime love affair with this Italian Towson mainstay. Well, we can happily report that the relationship is still on. Troia's new space is, um, spacious, with a quiet elegance warmed by lots of wood and terra-cotta walls, and a large, inviting new bar. And, yes, the food is still the authentic Italian we love: pure flavors like Mamma used to make, from a simple spaghetti puttanesca sparked with a pungent blend of olives, capers, and a hint of anchovy to the famously luxurious osso buco, topped with the traditional gremolata of lemon peel, parsley, and garlic. A few new pastas (like homemade, sweet-pea-filled tortelloni with Springfield Farm rabbit ragú) and steaks round out the old menu. Similarly, you'll find a new and spectacular chocolate flan alongside familiar dessert favorites, including that nonpareil tiramisu.
8. Della Notte
801 Eastern Avenue, 410-837-5500, dellanotte.com
Della Notte serves straight-up Italian fare in a lavish, Vegas-style setting, complete with classical architectural flourishes and even an indoor tree, lending a delightful if ersatz-piazza-like feel to the main dining room. Starters range from impeccably fresh salads of shaved fennel and orange segments and endive spiked with Gorgonzola and cherry walnut vinaigrette to deeply savory baked eggplant and fresh mozzarella. While meats and fish are given more complex treatments, pastas are traditional and excellent: fettuccine sprinkled with quality crab lumps sports a spicy, complex tomato sauce, while linguine with white clam sauce is textbook in execution with a sauce rich with white wine and olive oil. Even the house bread, often an afterthought, is remarkable. Oenophiles take note: Della Notte has one of the most extensive selections of Italian wines in town.
9. Aida Bistro & Wine Bar
6741 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia, 410-953-0500, aidabistro.com
In November, Aida moved to a new, slightly larger—and more visible—location. Though it's still in the same Columbia office park, the restaurant is now housed in a stand-alone building with a separate bar area (with a single, silent TV) and a dining room with more seating. The wine offerings have been enhanced with a wines-on-tap program, and this summer, Aida will have outdoor seating for the first time. Yet, owners Joe and Mary Barbera haven't messed with the qualities that have made this Italian restaurant a favorite for nine years. It still has soft lighting, a jazz-and-blues soundtrack, great service, and a menu of homemade pastas and luscious entrees made, whenever possible, with locally grown ingredients. The $38 prix-fixe menu, which changes weekly, is one of the region's better deals, offering two small plates and a main course. Entrees, such as braised short ribs over pasta, are addictively good. You'll likely be stuffed by dessert, but do consider the chocolate bread pudding, served warm and nestled in a splash of decadent caramel sauce.
10. Café Gia
410 S. High Street, 410-685-6727, cafegias.com
We confess that even if this colorful Little Italy corner cafe didn't serve some of the finest eggplant Parmagiana around, we'd still love it to pieces. The atmosphere is so gracious and unpretentious, the service so friendly (yes, there is a Gia, and her mother may be working the tables), and the prices so reasonable, it's a sure bet you'll be smiling the minute you walk in the door. The menu's highlights are simple but satisfying. This isn't groundbreaking territory, just straight-ahead Sicilian done well. The marinara on a plate of linguini is bursting with intense tomato flavor, the homemade ravioli stuffed with seafood is soft and rich, and the fried calamari is crisp and tender. And desserts? We're not usually fans of cannoli, but Gia's is exceptional, a cloud of lemon-flecked ricotta surrounded by a perfectly crispy shell. All in all, this may be our favorite neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood full of them. Buon appetito!
11. Sammy's Trattoria
1200 N. Charles Street, 410-837-9999, sammystrattoria.com
After five years, this Mt. Vernon restaurant, which specializes in hearty southern Italian cooking, is still dishing up sumptuous pasta dishes that show the care of the kitchen and owner Sam Curreri. Entrees like shrimp scampi, bolognese with pappardelle, chicken Marsala, and veal Parmesan feature homemade noodles and farm-fresh ingredients. The space is pretty, too, with goldenrod-yellow walls, soaring ceilings, wrought-iron details, and a cozy balcony for dining. It gets crowded on theater nights, but that's part of the energy as the staff puts on its own stellar performance.
The best of our international venues
1. Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant
8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004, www.tersiguels.com
Walking into this family-owned restaurant reminds us of stepping into a home at dinnertime, with its sepia-tinted wedding photos on the walls and rich garlicky scents in the air. Some things never change here. Customers know they will get a delicious amuse-bouche, water glasses will be attentively filled, and plates and silverware will be whisked away and replaced with fresh ones many times. The menu, too, though occasionally tweaked, has a timeless quality, with worthy classics like bouillabaisse over squid-ink fettuccine, a flavorful moist duck, and frog legs. Oysters, escargot, and other seafood in lots of garlic, wine, and butter dominate the appetizer list, but salads hold up, too, with intense flavors from frisée, watercress, goat cheese, and pecans. For dessert, a Napoleon swathed in tart Key-lime curd is an example of a gentle update that works.
2. The Helmand
806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311, www.helmand.com
In good times or bad, this longstanding Baltimore wonder remains blissfully constant, a haven that remains unchanged—right down to the shockingly reasonable prices—even after 21 years. Afghan dishes that once seemed exotic, like the kaddo borawni (lush baked pumpkin in yogurt-garlic sauce), now feel as comfortingly familiar as Mom’s home cooking; and everything on the menu, from the ground-beef-and-onion-stuffed ravioli called mantwo to the cardamom-spiked ice cream, remains consistently fine. Best of all, the convivial, well-appointed surroundings still make us feel as if we’re dining at a much pricier venue. Yes, sometimes change is good. But it’s nice to know that one of our old favorites keeps on keepin’ on.
3. Petit Louis Bistro
4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393, www.petitlouis.com
This Roland Park restaurant has all the verve of a bustling neighborhood place that embraces new visitors, too. Yes, the tables are close together, and you’ll probably find out more about nearby diners than you’d like, but the intimate dining room wins you over. Service is polished, too, providing a staff well-versed in the French-inspired dishes and wine pairings. Having Louis’s famous onion soup? The waiter’s suggestion of a buttery Chardonnay nicely complements the rich broth laden with caramelized onions. Sweetbreads are a treasure anywhere, and the ones offered here shine with earthy mushrooms in a Madeira reduction. You can count on the lean Magret duck breast being served rare over braised Swiss chard and dappled with confit apples. And the rainbow trout with almond brown butter tastes as if it’s just been reeled in. Desserts like the chocolate roulade with pistachio mousse satisfy your sweet tooth without going overboard.
4. The Ambassador Dining Room
3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484, www.ambassadordining.com
The Ambassador stands unshakable in an always-changing restaurant scene. Its Indian menu, somewhat softened for those with less adventurous palates, and its gorgeous dining room—crackling fireplaces when it’s cold, walls that recede for open-air dining when the weather is right—keep us returning. We crave the shahi korma, tender braised lamb in cream sauce with a smattering of nuts and raisins, and the mashli turka, a mild tomato-based Southern Indian curry used to prepare the fish of the day. A whole fish named for Goa, India’s Portuguese-settled seaside state, is crisp and pan-fried, topped with a tamarind-and-garlic sauce. Finish with a scoop of cardamom ice cream. It’s all served by a staff who are at once friendly and formal.
5. Tío Pepe
10 E. Franklin Street, 410-539-4675, coloquio.com
For more than 40 years, Tío Pepe has impressed tourists, native Baltimoreans, and the uninitiated. It’s that kind of place. Spanish-speaking waiters, intriguing food, and a photo-worthy European ambiance ensure its enduring charms. Start your meal with the smooth gazpacho—and have the waiter spoon vegetable garnishes of your choice over the bright, flavorful, and briskly cold soup. Or begin with fat artichoke hearts in hot hollandaise sauce; snails in individual stone pots, bubbling over with fragrant butter; or the aromatic shrimp in garlic sauce. Tío’s expertly prepared selection of fish is extensive, including mahi-mahi, sea bass, rockfish, and tilapia. Zarzuela, the Catalonian seafood stew, and the iconic paella are understandable favorites. And don’t forget to end with the always-popular pine-nut cake.
720 Aliceanna Street, 410-659-0099, www.roysrestaurant.com
With exceptional service, superb ingredients, and preparations that nicely straddle the exotic and grounded, Roy’s surpasses the perceptions many people have about chain restaurants. The interior is spacious and lush, the Hawaiian fusion is captivating, and the staff is agreeable and knowledgeable. The “Roy’s Trio” succeeds with seared salmon, blackened ahi tuna, and a superlative butterfish that is rich and finely textured—each drizzled with a different sauce. The well-seared Hawaiian opah, a fat morsel of moist, meaty fish with a dense, succulent grain, is also satisfying. The “Baltimore style” crab-cake appetizer is a nod to the region, but the patty, nearly all crab and no filler, is more mildly seasoned than its namesake. Dessert lovers need to know that the glorious chocolate molten soufflé has to be ordered 20 minutes in advance.
600 Oldham Street, 410-675-5292, www.samosrestaurant.com
No matter which restaurant you choose in Greektown, you will be treated to kindly hospitality and copious portions. But there’s a reason people wait in line at Samos. The food is that good. Even if you’re stuffed into the vestibule (or, at times, spilling out the door) with other hungry diners, the mood is festive as you await your table. Once seated in the bright-white dining room with vividly colored murals of the home country, a pleasant server will quickly bring an appetizer like tzatziki, a creamy dip with cucumbers and impossibly fresh pita triangles. Most entrees come with a crisp Greek salad, accompanied by a help-yourself bottle of the luscious house dressing. We always look forward to the traditional souvlaki platter with moist chunks of meat and the seafood, especially the grouper “Corfu” filled with spinach and feta. And even if you can’t pronounce it, finish with the galaktoboureka (custard wrapped in phyllo dough and gently topped with cinnamon-and-honey syrup). Before you go to Samos, there are a few things you need to know: The restaurant is BYOB, doesn’t take reservations, and only accepts cash. None of that seems to matter to the hordes that show up here regularly.
8. Mari Luna Latin Grill
1010 Reisterstown Road, 410-653-5151, www.mariluna.com
A taste tour of Central and South Americas is as close as a drive to Pikesville. Mari Luna Latin—whose older sibling Mari Luna Mexican Grill serves its signature cuisine several blocks away—delivers the rich flavor traditions of Hispanic countries south of the border in a brightly hued, informal dining room, where servers welcome you with hot, airy popovers and wonderfully perfumed mango-papaya-honey butter. After that, you can be your own travel guide. Head to Chile for a fat, translucent sea bass with sweet stewed tomatoes. Visit Peru for a rotisserie-grilled succulent half chicken served with a puréed lettuce-cilantro-Dijon sauce. Put several countries together with the Spanish Caesar salad with Serrano ham, shaved Manchego cheese, and briny white anchovies amid the romaine. Even the crab-claw appetizer goes native with a sultry sauce of lime, garlic, and olive oil. And how can you not end your trip with flan, a traditional baked custard dessert, bursting with a garnish of mango, papaya, strawberries, and pineapple?
615 President Street, 410-528-9883, www.talarabaltimore.com
Perhaps the best word to describe the atmosphere at Talara is buzz—pulsating background music, bright colors, neon lights, and the steady din of a seemingly omnipresent crowd. Of course, a few tropical cocktails like the refreshingly not-so-sweet cucumber-gin mojito don’t hurt either. Ceviche is touted as the main attraction here and comes in a variety of mix-and-match permutations, where your choice of seafood is paired up with a particular preparation. For instance, the excellent Fire and Ice, a bracing study in contrasts, mates extra-spicy habanero ceviche with soothing prickly pear granita. There are also sushi-inspired options like the Cuban roll, which is intensely flavorful—crunchy, creamy, and spicy in each bite. The kitchen dishes out nicely portioned tapas and mid-size plates, including a crisp mushroom flatbread and ethereally light corn-and-goat-cheese croquetas. Food and drink specials can be had at the bar during happy hour. You’ll need reservations for a table, particularly on weekends.
500 Harborview Drive, 410-727-3663, www.tabrizis.com
The view alone is enough to draw you to Tabrizi’s. Diners have a harbor-side seat to the Baltimore skyline and boats and ships gliding through the waters during warmer months. But even when the sun sets and the weather chills, the red Domino Sugars sign casts a bright glow on the dining room. The maize-colored walls and tile floors create a casual ambiance, but the crisp tablecloths remind us that entrees like pan-seared Chilean sea bass encrusted with sesame seeds and baby lamb chops drizzled with Cabernet demi-glace are put forth by a skilled kitchen. Tabrizi’s bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant. We think it leans more toward fusion. Sure, you’ll find house-made grape leaves stuffed with rice and hummus as starters, but you can also choose a creamy avocado half filled with crabmeat, duck sausage, or scallops in a vanilla rum sauce. The servers here are nice people if not the most smooth, and the desserts are average—though a towering stack of chocolate-chocolate-chip ice-cream blocks was worth the “oh, my” factor—but the scenery outside is what pulls it all together and makes a trip here quite worthwhile.
Extraordinary small plates
1. Tapas Adela
814 S. Broadway, 410-534-6262
Adela is perfectly suited to the small-plates phenomenon still sweeping the country—a trend that just may be here to stay. Here, diners are afforded excellent tapas in the Spanish tradition, from vegetarian to meat and seafood samplings, in a lovely dining room and sophisticated wood bar. If you’re daunted by the many choices, the capable and accommodating staff likes nothing better than to make menu suggestions, complete with in-depth ingredient breakdowns. But the chorizo, broad bean, and blood sausage fabada may be one of the best dishes we’ve ever tasted, especially on a nippy night with a glass of Rioja and Spanish flatbread. You can count on generous pours from the wine list, which offers a dozen choices by the glass. No wonder people flock to this place.
1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296, www.pazorestaurant.com
When Tony Foreman took over as chef last year, Baltimore’s most prolific front-of-the-house guy found himself in the kitchen. As far as we’re concerned, the transition worked. The restaurant, which now has Mario Cano-Catalan as its chef de cuisine, hasn’t lost its pulse. The soaring four-story former machine shop with its sunken bar area arrayed with comfy couches and banquettes draws an after-work crowd that lingers into dinner, transitioning from $5 tapas and drink specials to the full treatment. The new menu continues the evolution from tapas to a three-course format, though there’s still a separate list of small plates. Even so, we recommend sharing everything: the crabmeat bunuelos, fritter-like orbs with a smoky salsa; the Kobe beef ravioli with fava beans and sage; and the forest mushrooms with puréed celeriac and root-vegetable chips. In spite of its size, Pazo never seems intimidating. The glow of candlelight; the muted hues of stone, iron, and wood; and the comforting scent from the wood-burning oven make us feel right at home.
3. Tapas Teatro
1711 N. Charles Street, 410-332-0110, www.tapasteatro.net
This boho-chic restaurant has just enough attitude to lure the hip and urbane but also a generous dose of European gentility to bring in suburbanites who venture to its next-door neighbor, The Charles Theater, for a show. We like that we can step through a connecting door to discuss a film and share Mediterranean small plates amid a backdrop of brick walls, cozy wood tables, and high ceilings. In warmer weather, we take in the world at outdoor bistro tables as we munch on savory dishes like roly-poly lamb meatballs, salmon soaked in molasses, spicy chicken croquettes, and rock shrimp poached in extra virgin olive oil with garlic. A careful selection of wines, beer, and pitchers of sangria allows us to tarry just a little longer, or maybe it’s the lure of the chocolate purse provided by Patisserie Poupon: a milk-chocolate shell wrapped around an airy chocolate mousse.
1606 Thames Street, 410-563-7600, www.kalismezze.com
When Mezze—Kali Court’s more colorful sibling—opened in 2003, it was at the forefront of the tapas craze that continues to shower us with small plates today. But it doesn’t get much better than savoring Mezze’s Mediterranean bites in an intimate upstairs dining room with soaring ceilings, romantic lighting, and windows that overlook Kali’s attractive courtyard (although you can get your fun quotient fulfilled in the lively downstairs bar area, too). The restaurant’s impeccably professional staff keeps up the tempo, delivering items like the crunchy-outside-moist-inside beef-and-lamb meatballs, flavorful shrimp cakes, and chicken tigania in a savory oregano, olive oil, and tomato sauce. You’ll also want to nibble on the oven-roasted eggplant (sliced thinly, laced with tomatoes and onions, and capped with soothing haloumi cheese) or the tender calamari, enlivened with pecorino cheese and black pepper and served with an addictive garlic aioli. Stuffed? Keep going. You’ll hate yourself in the morning if you don’t finish with the pistachio-vanilla-custard kataifi and its vanilla ice-cream partner.
1444 Light Street, 443-869-6871, www.centrotapasbar.com
The food at Centro is both artistic and authentic, and one doesn’t need to spend a fortune to eat well. The offerings are numerous, and we have no favorites, as there is a dazzling array of textures, flavors, and styles to choose from. Rather, we’d like to sing the praises of the whole experience. We love how the front dining room has been massaged to include a lounge space, where one can enjoy the house sangria or frolic through a fairly priced wine list of delicious Spanish, Chilean, Argentine, and Portuguese goodness. Don’t overlook the sherry selections; it isn’t often one gets offered good sherry choices in Spanish restaurants. The servers are good at describing all the plates, and are always ready to fetch more of that sangria. We’re not a bit surprised that Centro is an instant hit.
6. Red Maple
930 N. Charles Street, 410-547-0149, www.930redmaple.com
This modernist lounge may be known for courting a late-night crowd with DJs, bottle service, and fancy drinks, but there’s also nourishment of the more solid variety. We recommend adding a few of the thoughtfully prepared small plates to your tab—like the seasonally inspired spinach salad with chunks of roasted pumpkin, lentils, and goat cheese, for example, or the classic crab dip with plenty of lumps in a creamy curry base. The hearty shepherd’s pie comes in a tiny ramekin, crusty with melted cheese and mashed potatoes layered over tenderloin. If you’re considering dessert, you can choose among such comestibles as the apple tart with goat cheese, a frothy mocha mousse, and a handful or other sweets. Or you can just ask for the drinkable, like a Dreamsicle, made with Pinnacle whipped-cream vodka—alarmingly reminiscent of the childhood favorite, but definitely for grown-ups.
Where the food matches the pours
1. Vino Rosina
507 S. Exeter Street, 410-528-8600, vinorosina.com
We love the kind of menu crammed with so many intriguing, great-sounding plates that it throws you into a tizzy of indecision. That’s about the only downside we can think of to trendy Vino Rosina. Owner Jim Lancaster, of the ever-popular Rosina Gourmet, cannily plunked down his first full-blown restaurant in hotter-than-hot Harbor East, carved out a sleek interior in the Bagby building space, and then hired Jesse Sandlin of Top Chef fame to execute the enticing grazing menu. (Even though Sandlin has since left the restaurant, we have every expectation that the good vibe and food will continue.) Naturally, the wine list is commodious and intriguing; it is also, happily, quite affordable, and all wines are available in three- or six-ounce pours (more choices, more decisions!). You may be flummoxed by the plethora of possibilities, but in this happening spot, you’ll have lots of fun being stumped.
2. The Wine Market
921 E. Fort Avenue, 410-244-6166, www.the-wine-market.com
The ever-changing, likable menu at The Wine Market is so packed with interesting ingredients and innovative preparations that it defies categorization. On a recent visit, Asian ingredients seemed to be pervasive. Shrimp croquettes combine locally farmed shrimp and salt cod to form a high-class coddie, highlighted with a smear of curry-scented sauce; tuna and hamachi carpaccio are accompanied by shiitake mushrooms and soy gelée; and a well-seared (but smallish) piece of fresh cod is marinated in plum wine and served with sweet-potato “tots” and a citrusy yuzu sauce. Buttermilk-brined chicken breast is unexpectedly shaped into a roulade of moist meat encased in home-style batter with cornbread and a strikingly zesty Tabasco honey jelly. Desserts are similarly inventive. The carrot cake—dense and dark, with almost a spoon-bread consistency—is deconstructed and surrounded by teeny cubes of candied carrots and a ball of semifreddo. The Wine Market just gets better and better.
3. Bistro Blanc
3800 Ten Oaks Road, Glenelg, 410-489-7907
Can a wine bar tucked in the hinterland of Howard County be worth the drive from Baltimore? You betcha. We are charmed by many things: owner Raj Kathuria, who stops by each table to ensure the meal is going well; the cool, self-serve Enomatic wine dispenser; the cheerful room with sunset-orange walls; and especially the chef, Marc Dixon, who wows our palate. This clever cook serves innovative small plates like “Pig & Fig” with a citrus-braised pork shoulder and black mission figs and “Rustic Rabbit” with soft meat and tiny gnocchi that offer surprising potato goodness. Even the composed salad—a fluff of micro greens and veggies set off with a hunk of Humboldt Fog cheese—shows thoughtfulness. Entrees follow suit: A pan-roasted duck breast with incredible Brussels sprouts and a pork tenderloin with a creative galette of sweet potatoes layered with ground pork deliver as promised. You don’t want to head back to the Beltway without dessert. That way, you can rave about the warm chocolate Cabernet ganache and white-chocolate-cinnamon crème brûlée all the way home.
4. Iron Bridge Wine Co.
10435 State Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456, www.ironbridgewines.com
Brothers Rob and Steve Wecker established a neighborhood wine bar that is a destination for oenophiles and foodies alike with its soothing lighting; generous use of drapery; soft, upholstered seats; and communal bar that curves like a river through the backroom. Chef Scott Sommer delivers a delightful menu of mostly small plates—“grilled cheese,” featuring a miniature wheel of grilled Brie with a rum-infused, sour-cherry-and-apricot compote on the side, foie-gras bread pudding decorated with generous chunks of lobster, and simple flatbread, dressed in seasonal vegetables—ample for sharing. Sticking with the starter side of the menu will serve you well, but the short list of entrees, ranging from a rack of lamb with puréed root vegetables to a pumpkin curry, redolent of coconut and cilantro, will make for a long and satisfying evening.
5. Pairings Bistro
2105 Laurel Bush Road, Suite 108, Bel Air, 410-569-5006
Chef/owner Jon Kohler has brought city tastes to the countryside with his seasonal menu and wine pairings presented in a petite, contemporary space (30 seats) in a slip of a strip-shopping center. Tucked off the side of the dining room is a small wine shop, too. Diners will know their taste buds are in good hands as all the offerings—from a charcuterie plate with locally cured boar sausage, duck pâté, and smoked scallop mousse to entrees of double-rib lamb chops, crusted with chèvre and garlic, and a plate-sized seafood crêpe—are prepared with care. Even the warm chocolate bouchons (cork-shaped brownies) add a flourish at the end. You’ll only be sorry that this find isn’t closer to Baltimore.