Up until now, The Food Market on The Avenue has been a somewhat mysterious relic of another Hampden. The small grocery store was a refuge for John Waters’s character Pecker; off-screen, it was a place to buy lottery tickets and cheap wine and, at one time, to play slots. It never seemed to embrace the changing neighborhood, never stocked cold-pressed olive oil and artisanal sausage or hosted a tasting of cheeses from local farms.
The flurry surrounding The Food Market’s new incarnation, as a crisp and exuberant New American restaurant, began before it even opened its doors on a warm Friday evening in June. The neighborhood crowds in the know, who arrived to slurp inaugural cocktails made with fresh fruits and herbs, to happily dig into lumpy crab cakes and watermelon salads with Cherry Glen goat cheese, felt part of something cool and new.
Indeed, the buzz generated by this new restaurant, which joins a growing collection of happening spots—but somehow manages to fill a niche—in Hampden, has remained as persistent these last few months as the drone of cicadas on a summer’s eve.
The space is simple, a big rectangular room with banquettes along each side, tables down the middle, and a small bar near the expansive window in the front. One wall is white-painted brick, another is steel. The focal point is the kitchen, visible through an opening in the back, its busy chefs highlighted against a backdrop of blue-glazed tile.
The leader back there is Chad Gauss, known to many as a local chef who seems to “get” Baltimore. The stated objective in the kitchen, blue-collar food with white-collar execution, will remind diners of his upscale take on TV dinners and wedge salads at City Cafe.
At its most basic, just about every item on The Food Market menu is familiar: spaghetti with meatballs, steak frites, and fried oysters. But there’s always a twist. The meatballs are really crab cakes, succulent spheres of sweet crab on a heaping serving of spaghetti, cooked al dente, and served with a slightly spicy fra diavolo sauce. And the fat fried oysters are presented in a swirl of bacon-and-egg emulsion with green hot sauce. Comfort food, indeed, but conceived in a way your mother never would have had the time—or the technique—to muster.
Cocktails are a nice starter, with seasonal selections like the whimsical “gin na say pa,” a strong concoction of Bombay Sapphire gin and muddled blackberries, with large basil leaves and a touch of simple syrup. The house sangria is light and fruity, the vinho verde base sweetened with lemon, lime, and orange juice, dyed pink by a splash of Campari. The wine list is lean but complete, with each selection available by the bottle or the glass.
There’s a fun selection of bar snacks, called “little” plates—hot nuts (both in seasoning and temperature), truffle-oil-and-basil-dusted popcorn, pickles, soft pretzels, and the like, perfect for noshing while contemplating the menu.
The rest of the dishes are arranged in categories such as small, big, and in between, encouraging a traditional appetizer-entree approach, random grazing, or, depending on your tablemates, some combination thereof. “In between” is the sandwich list, offering ground bacon, bison, and vegetarian burgers, a Baltimore club, a lobster roll, and more.
On a given night, small plates can range from a Caesar salad with tender purple romaine, lightly dressed in a sharp garlicky dressing, to potato skins heaped with duck confit in a rich Mornay sauce with a smattering of English peas. A plate of crispy fried chicken nuggets is dressed up with a drizzle of barbecue sauce and garnished with small heaps of watermelon and blue cheese, a picnic on a plate. On another evening, an endive salad was served with pistachios, sweet pickled onion, and salty pancetta.
The “big” category offers a similar selection of gussied-up dishes. The Creekstone Farms steak is perfectly seared and comes with a small paper bag of salty garlic fries. A blackened tuna is Cajun-hot on the outside, ruby red within, and is accompanied by sweet sticky rice and succotash.
Desserts, called the “everything after” course, are a mix of seasonal offerings and are simply decadent. The oversized Heath-bar bread pudding, with its caramel sauce, fresh whipped cream, and candy crunch, must be shared. While a tart of local peaches, topped in cognac-laced crème anglaise and Taharka brothers vanilla ice cream, may be hard not to hoard.
Our most pressing quibble at The Food Market is the noise. The cavernous room of mostly hard surfaces, filled with a boisterous clientele, tends toward the deafening. We were told at press time, however, that sound engineers had fixed the problem, so that issue should be resolved. Just in time for a cozy autumn repast.