As we graze our way through an array of small plates—steamed Brussels sprouts with soy dipping sauce, seared scallops on a bed of kale with a crumble of salty pork belly, and a simple flatbread with fresh garlic embedded beneath chewy mozzarella—we're already planning our next visit, wondering about all the things we didn't get to try this time around.
Of course, Level, which opened last year, didn't invent small plates. In fact, the Annapolis restaurant, with its simple, open brick-and-wood interior, might be accused of surfing a trend, or even being a bit late to the party. But the small plates here—which range from whimsical to finicky—reinforce our suspicion that this style of dining is here to stay. And we're okay with that.
The restaurant's convivial happy hour, with its ridiculously tempting and affordable list of cocktails ($5 between 4:30 and 7 p.m.), is another plus. There's a gimlet topped with a dollop of meringue-like lime foam; an oyster shooter (the bivalve plopped in a skinny shot glass with tequila and Bloody Mary mix); a cucumber margarita with fresh lime juice and organic agave; and seasonal muddled concoctions, like the Angels and Demons with cilantro mashed with habanero pepper and fresh lime and mixed with organic tequila and elderflower liqueur.
The happy-hour menu also offers selections from the regular menu: Japanese eggplant grilled in olive oil, sprinkled with feta and tea-smoked salt; pillows of chewy gnocchi that have been seared brown and crispy outside, with a dash of red pepper and creamy mustard sauce; and fries with crushed garlic and rosemary, all priced at $5.
In the same way that small plates seem to be here to stay, conscientious eating—highlighting local ingredients whenever possible, with an emphasis on fresh and sustainable—is becoming standard at many restaurants. Level seems to weave these principles into a menu of comfort food imbued with plenty of creative twists. We love the fish sticks—spears of panko-crusted rockfish the size of your pinkie finger—served with tartar sauce spiked with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. While the fish may be served in a miniature Fryolator-style basket, the napkin lining doesn't have a speck of grease. A serving of short ribs, resting on a dollop of sweet potato purée, is fork-tender and flavorful in its own juices.
And there is one dessert that may just change your relationship with milk and cookies. It features two soft warm cookies, oozing chunks of chocolate, accompanied by an oversized teacup of cold chocolate milk, topped with cookie dough-essence foam. If that isn't evocative enough, go for the peanut-butter-and-jelly ice cream—plain vanilla with swirls of the revered childhood combo.
If you only have room for one dessert, you'll just have to mark your calendar for another visit.