With all the gushing going on about the new Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, it’s no wonder that expectations were high for its restaurant Wit & Wisdom: A Tavern by Michael Mina. Opening parties and dinners were held in mid-November, luring the glitterati with freebies and tours. People were awed by the swank, contemporary space that some have dubbed a “museum.”
We bided our time, waiting for the love fest to settle down before heading to the gorgeous dining room armed with an open mind and a fat wallet. It’s definitely a pricey place—$19 for what is essentially a six-shrimp cocktail; $26 for a crab-cake sandwich, for example.
The food mostly lives up to expectations, though there were a few stumbles. But perhaps the most glorious part of the meal was dessert. Executive pastry chef Chris Ford is doing some magical baking in the kitchen.
Actually, the whole team deserves praise. Executive chef Benjamin Lambert has made an endearing effort to incorporate Maryland foods into his clever menu, deemed “comfort food with a contemporary American twist.” You’ll see familiar names like Marvesta shrimp, Gunpowder bison, and Hamilton Bakery bread. An HCC lunch salad turns out to feature greens from Hamilton Crop Circle.
The mastermind behind Wit & Wisdom is Michael Mina, a San Francisco-based chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is a James Beard Award winner, and has earned Michelin stars. He now has a string of restaurants around the country, including Atlantic City and D.C. Wit & Wisdom is restaurant number 19.
Mina will be opening another restaurant, Pabu, focusing on Japanese cuisine, at the Four Seasons. He is partnering with a prestigious San Franciso chef, Ken Tominaga, for the project, scheduled to open in February or March.
In the meantime, he is still a literal presence at Wit & Wisdom, which he built around wood-fired cooking with its open kitchen and lovely smoky flavors. The bison tenderloin is a case in point.
The medium-rare meat was meltingly tender with an underlying essence of oak. A sweet-potato purée, slices of Brussels sprouts, and sticks of tart apple played well with the bison.
We started our meal with the above-mentioned shrimp from Marvesta, poached and served nicely chilled on a bed of ice with cocktail sauce. We also nibbled on wonderful meatballs with whipped polenta, attractively served in a small black cast-iron pot.
The pot was cool to the touch, so we knew that it wasn’t the original cooking vessel. It didn’t affect the temperature of the meatballs, but another appetizer—Maryland blue-crab gratin—suffered from its cold cast-iron skillet. The creamy gratin, with not much crab and lots of chopped sweet peppers, was lukewarm at best.
For an entree, we also enjoyed a whey-braised monkfish from the menu’s “slow cooked and braised” section. The thick, center-cut fillet had a crunchy coating that worked well with the full-flavored, juicy interior. The roasted potatoes and onions and HCC bitter greens were homey and delicious.
We were intrigued by the porchetta from the “rotisserie” choices. Its side of spinach—emerald green and garden fresh—had snap and depth. The pork roast, however, was tough and chewy.
The earnest wait staff, dressed in sophisticated black, glides attentively around the elegant dining room. The meal is paced accordingly, drinks are refreshed, dishes removed in a timely manner, and you are made to feel special.
And while we do appreciate a knowledgeable sommelier, ours was perhaps too involved. We really wanted a chance to look at the impressive wine list uninterrupted before making a decision or asking for advice. We eventually succumbed to his entreaties and were pleased with his choice of a reasonably priced St. Eugénie Corbières.
Wit & Wisdom’s setting will probably be the fanciest “tavern” you have ever visited. The sumptuous velvet banquettes, leather chairs, flickering lights, and wall of windows overlooking the harbor are luxe, indeed. But they’re also comfortable, not stodgy.
After dinner, we enjoyed the scene while sipping hot coffee, served with frothed cream—an impressive nicety. Any misgivings about our meal were completely dismissed as we indulged in dessert.
The supposed non-dessert eater among us polished off the deconstructed red-velvet cake after sharing samples. It was heavenly. Pieces of moist cake (colored with beet juice, nothing artificial here) were arranged on a rectangular plate with small scoops of cocoa-nib ice cream, spiced pecans, and slivers of chocolate.
The Baltimore bar was just as amazing with layers of chocolate brownie, peanut-butter ganache, and chocolate mousse covered with lush chocolate studded with caramelized peanuts and pretzel pieces. The dessert is an homage to Babe Ruth’s hometown and the Baby Ruth candy bar.
We headed back to Wit & Wisdom several days later for lunch. It’s a cheery spot in the afternoon. And the servers were as professional and polite as they were on our first visit.
We knew we wanted to try the crab-cake sandwich. It proved to be Maryland worthy and reminded me of a Faidley patty. (Is it sacrilegious to even suggest that?)
A broiled mound of local crab was tucked into a toasted, seeded roll and topped by a few strands of pickled red-onion slivers and a dab of tartar sauce. It didn’t have the girth of some other crab cakes in town, but it was a quality rendition of our hometown favorite. We just wish it wasn’t so expensive.
But that’s part of the Four Seasons allure. The impeccable hotel with its elegant accommodations and amenities calls for restaurants with an air of sophistication and polish. With only a few glitches, Wit & Wisdom delivers all that and more.