The owner of Cardinal Tavern in Canton fell in love with Baltimore when he was a kid visiting from Elizabethtown, Pa.
Now 38, Justin Hostetter, who lives in York, Pa., returned to the city when looking for a new business venture. "I was drawn to this area," said Hostetter, who purchased Cardinal Tavern in November.
He inherited executive chef Steven Grant, who came to the Cardinal two months before Hostetter bought it. Grant, who hails from Harlem, Ga., peppers the menu with a Southern vibe. Together, the men have raised the flavor profiles of the menu, Hostetter said.
And while dishes like Southern fried chicken and fried green tomatoes pay homage to Grant's native food, the chef is deft at weaving other cuisines into the restaurant's offerings — such as the Bangkok crispy Brussels sprouts and spicy harissa black-eyed pea hummus.
Grant also hasn't lost sight that he's in Baltimore now, including items like Chesapeake Bay oysters, local bratwurst and a deviled egg trio that features one with Maryland crab.
The brick corner tavern, which promotes its assortment of whiskey and bourbon, isn't just for the drinking crowd. There is an upstairs dining room, where it's perfectly fine to take the family. On our recent visit, the 13-year-old in our party had no trouble finding several dishes to try, including a massive burger.
The menu features an array of starters, soups, salads, sandwiches and supper items to please all types of palates. There's even a 12-piece fried chicken meal served with four side dishes and four biscuits for large parties.
Ultimately, Cardinal Tavern offers a level of thoughtfulness and sophistication to its dishes that raises the bar on pub grub in Baltimore.
Scene & Decor: The two-level corner tavern has a dual personality: It's a bar on the lower level and a family-friendly space on a second floor. The dining space features brick walls and bare wood tables on antique wrought-iron bases, some positioned in front of comfy, tufted banquettes.
Appetizers: The Bangkok crispy Brussels sprouts ($10) were a generous bowl of halved vegetables made lively with Thai chilies, ginger, honey and a sweet chili sauce. The Baltimore-style steamed Gulf shrimp (half-pound, $12), laced with soft onions, are prepared with a different local craft beer each week. The result is a flavorful broth that diners shouldn't forget to slurp up. The chipotle-lime smoked duck wontons ($12) were wonderful, encasing a spicy mix of Pennsylvania duck, cabbage, carrots and chipotle peppers. We were expecting the accompanying ghost pepper ranch dressing to pack a painful wallop since the pepper is considered one of the hottest. Thankfully, it didn't. There was some heat, but only enough to enhance the wontons.
Entrees: The 901 South Clinton burger ($13) was a monster mound, with a juicy beef patty draped with white cheddar cheese and an over-easy fried egg on top of one half of the brioche bun; the other half was layered with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and applewood bacon. It was a great messy meal. The Louisiana Creole jambalaya ($17) was a beautiful melange of chicken, Andouille sausage and crab strewn over a Cajun rice stew. The Southern fried chicken portion of the menu offers choices of two to 12 pieces. We picked the one with three pieces ($16). It also included a tender biscuit the size of a moon pie. As our side, we enjoyed a freshly made cucumber and tomato salad.
Drinks: Beer, wine, whiskey and bourbon. The tavern plans to introduce a new cocktail menu soon, Hostetter said, focusing on classic mixed drinks like a New Orleans Sazerac and a Maryland mule made with Sagamore Spirit rye.
Service: Our waitress was attentive and made sure we were well tended to.
Dessert: There was only one dessert on the menu, a sundae ($8) — but it was terrific, using summer produce at its best. Scoops of sweet corn ice cream were enhanced with a sweet corn gelee, toasted pecans and whipped cream.