Aromes, a beguiling new 28-seat French restaurant in Hampden, is unique in Baltimore.
Each night at Aromes, chef and owner Steve Monnier prepares six dishes, including dessert. And that's it. Only a few restaurants in Baltimore offer such a small menu, but their diners get to choose from among at least a few appetizers, pasta dishes and entrees.
At Aromes, there are no choices to be made, except for this one: Do you want three of the plates for $45 or all six for $65?
The dishes are served one by one, with enough time between courses to chat with your dinner companion about literature, art or potholes. There's something about Monnier's food that makes you want to give it your full attention. There are flavors to figure out and techniques to ponder.
I'm making it sound precious. But it didn't feel that way at the table. The long dining room at Aromes is comfortable if a bit spartan. Rows of bare light bulbs are suspended from the ceiling, the brick walls are mostly unadorned and the wooden tables are set very simply. It's the kind of room that depends on people, the diners, for its warmth. The mood is quiet but not reverential.
There's another singular thing about Aromes, whose name in French translates to "aromas." When it says it has a changing menu, it's not kidding. A few of the six dishes we tried had been replaced on the menu the next day, and not one was there a week later.
Some dishes might rotate back on the menu, but the idea is that you'll want to follow the seasons with Monnier. And right now might be the best time to meet Aromes. In summer, any chef worth his or her salt can go to town with a tomato, but in the last days of winter, Monnier was making magic with beets, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and onions.
Especially the onions. The second dish of the evening was a study in onions. An onion fantasy. Monnier braises onions with vanilla and star anise, chars them, caramelizes them, purees them and forms them with butter into a pastry that resembles a pie crust.
The onion dish, like the other five dishes on the menu, doesn't have a name. Rather the dishes appear as simple lists of ingredients; in this case, "Onion, onion soubise, onion sable, sorrel and grape."
Soubise, your waiter will tell you, is a luxurious sauce of caramelized onions, and sable refers to those buttery bits of pastry that Monnier sprinkles over his exquisite onion composition. Resting atop the puree are delicate petals of charred onions, and underneath, a vivid, spiky "jus" of sorrel, celery and grape. The overall effect is impressive. There are sweet notes and slightly bitter ones, creaminess and, from the sable, a delicate crunch.
Our first dish was all about the beets. There were ribbons of pickled beets perched on a shimmering "tartare" cylinder of pistachio oil-marinated beets. A charcoal-roasted "beet ash" was sprinkled over creme fraiche and garnished with tiny leaves of an herb named plum lucky sorrel. Again, the flavors are intriguing, almost difficult, and a little work is involved in your discovering them, but it's worth the effort.
After the onion dish came another little marvel, a tender terrine of Jerusalem artichoke and potatoes that was topped with cured egg yolk and served with a puree of buttermilk and chervil. Then it's a slender serving of pork belly, served with a warm lobster-almond broth and accompanied by licorice puff potatoes, which dissolve, fragrantly, the moment they hit your tongue.
For the last course before dessert, Monnier prepared a small fillet of monkfish served with slices of celery root in a chickpea dashi, or stock. It was interesting, but I didn't love it. The monkfish was just a bit stubborn — I kept hoping for it to yield more sweetness, but it never did.
Dessert is typically a homemade ice cream, gelato or sorbet. Ours was an oval of goat-milk ice cream served with caramelized yogurt, "grassy" olive oil and sea salt. Like everything at Aromes, it was just big enough to let you get its full character without weighing you down.
If you can swing it, you should really go for the six-plate arrangement. It's worth it to get the full effect.
Know that Aromes has a BYOB policy — the savings on wine will make up for that extra $20 for the larger meal. Grano Emporio, right across the street, has affordable wines for sale, and Wine Source is a short walk away.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Hampden/Woodberry