Appearance is the last thing on chef Mark Levy’s mind when he’s mulling over ideas for new dishes at Magdalena, the restaurant at the Ivy Hotel in Mount Vernon.
So when he created the peekytoe crab salad — a ball of yellow-tinged crab salad hidden beneath folds of pink turnips and sprinkled with fresh herbs — its final appearance surprised him.
“When I come up with food, I never think of what the plate’s going to look like,” said Levy, the restaurant’s executive chef. “It’s flavor-centric and ingredient-strong, and then the rest really comes together with the artist’s eye.”
Magdalena serves some of the most visually stunning foods in Baltimore, but each dish’s artistry plays second fiddle to its flavor. Once Levy has a sense of the components of a dish, he said, the visual representation comes into focus later.
Magdalena isn’t the only restaurant in town serving eye-popping food. Here are just a few of the dishes on local menus that are as appealing to the eyes as they are to the taste buds.
Magdalena: Peekytoe crab salad ($20)
205 E. Biddle St., 410-514-0303, magdalenarestaurant.com
Wrapped in a ruffles of pink pickled turnips, the peekytoe crab salad is among the new additions to Magdalena’s winter menu.
“This was more of an Indian inspiration,” Levy said. “I love ethnic foods so relating to these flavors with the curry and the pickle and the rice, they all seem to fold into each other very nicely.”
Levy wanted to incorporate a shellfish appetizer among Magdalena’s winter offerings. He considered crab ravioli, but took a decidedly unique approach with the Indian-spiced salad. The dish incorporates peekytoe crab (also known as Jonah crab) meat, vadouvan mayonnaise, puffed wild rice, chopped mint and pickled mango. The ingredients are mixed together, balled and plated atop radish slices, more pickled mango and herb oil. The mixture is then wrapped in leaves of pickled turnips and topped with grated cured egg yolk, the herb lovage and flowering watercress.
“No two are the same,” Levy said. “It’s like a snowflake.”
Cosima: Fettucine nero con aragosta ($38*)
3000 Falls Road, 443-708-7352, cosimamill1.com
One of the most beautiful dishes at Cosima was inspired by a dish that chef-owner Donna Crivello’s grandmother, the restaurant’s namesake, made with her mother. Crivello remembers her grandmother and mother bringing home lobsters from a fish market near their home in Boston and plunging them into a vat of marina. The lobsters cooked in the sauce and were later served over spaghetti.
At Cosima, Crivello put a twist on the dish. Lobsters are boiled, cut in half, then finished on a wood-burning grill. Instead of serving them over spaghetti, Crivello wanted to add color contrast to the dish, so they’re served with black fettuccine made with cuttlefish ink, topped with marinara, charred tomatoes and greens.
“That’s my take on a childhood favorite,” Crivello said.
The dish has been on Cosima’s menu since the restaurant opened two years ago.
“I don’t think we can take that off the menu,” Crivello said. “People love it.”
Bar Vasquez: Asado mixed grill ($79)
1425 Aliceanna St., 410-534-7296, barvasquez.com
The asado mixed grill at Bar Vasquez combines 30 ounces of meat on one plate, including a 24-ounce bone-in rib steak, sweetbreads, Argentine pork sausage and blood sausage, served with scallions, corn, peppers and chimichurri.
“An asado is the classic steak dish of Argentina,” Bar Vasquez owner Tony Foreman said. “For the first-time folks that come to the restaurant, that is the place to start.”
The dish is often shared — “It’s a serious eater that has it solo,” Foreman said — and paired with a few small plates, it makes for an easy unstructured meal.
Manor Tavern: Roasted rainbow salad ($12)
15819 Old York Road; 410-771-8155; themanortavern.com
The roasted rainbow salad at the Manor Tavern showcases colorful carrots and other produce sourced from the Monkton restaurant’s garden. The warm baby carrots are centered around a dollop of goat cheese and sprinkled with sunflower seeds. The salad also includes cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and butternut squash, and is drizzled with honey lime chipotle yogurt dressing.
Loch Bar: Shellfish tower ($85-$250)
240 International Drive, 443-961-8949, lochbarbaltimore.com/baltimore
The Grand Shellfish Tower at Loch Bar includes 12 oysters, 12 clams, six mussels, half a lobster, Alaskan king crab, six shrimp, scallop carpaccio and bigeye tuna poke. And this is just the medium size of three shellfish towers the restaurant offers. The Royal Shellfish Tower includes 18 oysters, 12 clams, nine mussels, two lobster tails, two Alaskan king crab legs, eight shrimp cocktail, two servings each of scallop carpaccio and bigeye tuna poke. And finally, the Petit Tower includes six oysters, six clams, three mussels, half a lobster tail and four shrimp.
Avenue Kitchen & Bar: Flaming hot Cheetos mac and cheese ($6)
911 W. 36th St., 443-961-8515, avenuekitchenbar.com
It’s not just a gimmick — the flaming hot Cheetos mac and cheese at Hampden’s Avenue Kitchen & Bar is creamy and fulfilling. The cheesy pasta is topped with crushed Cheetos. Owner Bill Irvin buys the neon orange snack food from a nearby Royal Farms.
Blue Moon Cafe: Frito pie French toast ($14.95)
Blue Moon Cafe: 1621 Aliceanna St., 410-522-3940; bluemoonbaltimore.com
Blue Moon Too: 1024 Light St., 443-759-4907; bluemoonbaltimore.com
The Frito pie French toast was on and off the Blue Moon Cafe menu as a special for 10 years before it became a regular addition about three years ago. After the all-day breakfast joint became known for its Cap’n Crunch French toast, owner Sarah Simington wanted to add a savory option.
“French toast is my first love. … Fritos are my favorite chip,” Blue Moon owner Sarah Simington said. “It was almost like kismet. It’s kind of like all my recipes come to me — it’s like lightning bolts.”
The Frito pie French toast is topped with chorizo, red and green salsas, black beans and sour cream.
“It’s chewy, it’s crunchy — it covers everything you want in the dish,” Simington said.
Nanami Cafe: Sashimi combo ($24)
907 S. Ann St., Baltimore; 410-327-9400; nanamicafe907.com
Served in a tray shaped like a boat, Nanami Cafe’s sashimi combo incorporates an array of seafood and fixings. The combo includes multiple types of fish, sushi rolls and vegetables. The chef’s sushi sashimi boats, larger versions of the sampler, are also available for $60 or $80.
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