Tavern on the Square was rocking the night we visited. The happy-hour crowd spilled over to the few outdoor tables. Inside, the banter was loud and the music even louder. Uh oh. We surmised quickly that we were not going to have a quiet meal. The narrow dining room was barely separated from the bar.
Still, we persevered. The Canton Square restaurant—formerly Fins and a bunch of other places—is run by the same guys who own the impressive Blue Hill Tavern in Brewers Hill and has a former Blue Hill executive sous chef in the kitchen. Surely, there would be good food to come. And despite a few gaffes, that assumption held true.
Once we made our way through the knots of people in the front, a bartender waved us to a side area with bare tables, dark woods lightened with pale-colored walls, and iconic Baltimore photographs by the acclaimed A. Aubrey Bodine. The place is casual, apropos of its central Canton location. We picked a seat and perused the menu. We were immediately intrigued by the wild-game-heavy list that also has Asian leanings.
When I asked co-owner Mel Carter about the focus on local game when the restaurant opened in January, he said, “I grew up with it. My family was big into fishing and hunting in Maryland.”
There is also an assortment of tempting bar snacks, paninis, sandwiches, and grilled pizzas. We were going for a bigger meal. We started with sautéed wild mushrooms—big and chunky—tossed with a creamy Boursin cheese mix and served with thick slices of toasted French bread. The spread was as intoxicating as a bottle of champagne. We couldn’t stop eating it.
We really wanted to try the pheasant-and-waffle appetizer, which promised a cornflake-fried pheasant leg, buttermilk waffle, and roasted-pheasant gravy. But, alas, a broken waffle iron kept us from checking out this intriguing dish. Maybe next time.
We then decided on Thai lettuce wraps, three crisp leaves cradling aromatic peanut-braised chunks of chicken and pickled vegetable kimchee—a treat, indeed. But our main dishes arrived before we finished, and we had to scoot the appetizers out of the way to make room for the new arrivals. It’s a good thing we were seated at a table for four. The plates were piling up faster than a Daytona crash.
That could have happened because the food is delivered by runners from the kitchen who quickly hurry back for their next delivery, and the servers were juggling too many tables. It’s not as chaotic as it might sound. Co-owner Carter was a presence in the dining room when we visited and was making sure diners got their meals in good order.
We were soon distracted by our excellent entrees. The wild-boar chops, french cut like lamb chops with the bone exposed, were succulent morsels. The brandied braised apple slices gussied up the meat with a touch of sweetness. And the sweet-potato fries provided crunch. We would have liked some greens, though.
The thick chunks of wasabi-pea-encrusted tuna fillets were great foils for roasted baby bok choy, piquant shredded carrots, and a soy-ginger glaze. The flavors married successfully.
Desserts are limited, but the made-in-house lemon-cream pie was all we needed. The refreshing slice with a most tender crust had bits of rind in the filling, providing a tangy, satisfying ending.
On another visit, we weren’t so successful with dessert. We opted for an oatmeal-cookie-ice-cream sandwich. The thick cookies were too hard to cut with a fork and knife. And the sandwich proved too ungainly to eat with our hands. We tried, but ended up looking like a messy toddler in the process.
We had much better luck with our starters and main dishes, where executive chef Jeremy Thatcher seems to shine. The duck-confit spring rolls were crispy on the outside but burst with moist flavor with each bite. Shreds of melt-in-your-mouth duck partnered with chopped Napa cabbage, carrots, and celery. Each delectable roll was drizzed with teriyaki ginger sauce.
The cracker-crusted fried oysters, juicy and slithery, were fine by themselves, but the herb-laced mignonette mayo was a fresh alternative to traditional cocktail sauce.
We were quite excited to try the pheasant pot pie, which showcased pieces of braised pheasant, onions, peas, mushrooms, and leeks in a rich pheasant gravy. The presentation was gorgeous. A bronze puff pastry covered the contents, which were served in an orange ceramic skillet.
Our other entree, grilled salmon with tomatillo sauce, was equally delicious with a center-cut fillet bathed in a creamy coating. The accompanying chipotle rice worked by itself, but its strong flavor overpowered the delicate fish.
For its part, Tavern on the Square is capitalizing on the flavor of the neighborhood. It’s a comfortable watering hole for the locals who want fun drinks and munchies, but also suits the just-home-from-work professionals and families looking for a creative menu.
With a few tweaks, we think the owners and the chef will have nailed it. And the noise? We can live with that.