Hanger steak

Hanger steak blackened and grilled with gouda-princess potatoes, sauteed swiss chard in a chipotle demi at Fork and Wrench. (Colby Ware, Special to The Baltimore Sun / June 12, 2012)

The crowds have found Fork & Wrench, a white-hot new spot on Boston Street. They're enjoying the smartly constructed launch menu from executive chef Sajin Renae, formerly of Vino Rosina. It's a model first menu, small enough for a new kitchen to manage but with a good balance of the everyday and the edgy — hanger steaks and seared tuna Nicoise on one hand, rabbit pie and seared Magret duck breast on the other.

But folks are also piling in to bask in the beauty. Fork & Wrench is a knockout. The owners took almost two years to open its doors, which seemed forever. But when you see what they've done, you'll be amazed that it happened so fast.

Andy Gruver and Jason Sanchez built the interior space themselves out of two adjoining commercial properties. Their goal, they have said, was to "combine the dive bar and four-star attitudes into one space for the benefit of the 'modern-day' working class."

The dive bar aesthetic applies mostly to the sumptuous bar and lounge, just inside the main street entrance, where even on a bright, scorching evening it remains dark and cool. You could spend your entire first visit here and leave assuming you've seen the whole Fork & Wrench. You'd be wrong.

By all means, spend some time before dinner at the bar or in one of the three gorgeous half-moon upholstered booths. There's a compact menu of reimagined cocktails to hold your interest. The six taps pour good local beers from Stillwater, Heavy Seas and Dogfish Head.

Don't overlook three other dining areas, none of which you can see from the lounge. A dramatic open space has been carved out of the adjoining building, with seating on the ground floor in an area called the Study and above on the Mezzanine, which is the best option for quiet and comfortable dining. On the level above the lounge is the Linen Room, with more casual seating at tall tables.

With its salvaged trimmings and reclaimed surfaces, Fork & Wrench has the earnest, stripped-down look of a farm-to-table restaurant. Some of that ethos is in play — the current menu is blooming with pea tendrils and asparagus, and Montgomery County's Cherry Glen Farms is the restaurant's cheesemaker.

But Fork & Wrench isn't beholden to any mission. The charcuterie isn't made in-house, although it will eventually be. But the current lineup of meats and cheeses has been selected with Renae's curator's eye and accompanied by her homemade pickled vegetables and bright-idea condiments like strawberry-rhubarb jam, creme fraiche and whole-grain mustard. And Renae's best dishes aren't necessarily local or, for that matter rigidly seasonal. They're just good.

With a rabbit pie, Renae shows off both a knack for savory pastry — hers is deeply buttery and flaky — and for tempering a sometimes tricky game animal. Throw in some honey-butter carrots and pleasantly bitter parsley coulis, and you've got yourself an all-season winner. With the scallop entree, it's all about the risky play of opposing flavors and textures, the sort of thing that either works beautifully or fails utterly. When the sweet and pillowy scallops, coated with candied bacon, meet Renae's astringent pesto of dill and pistachio, it's a gold-star moment.

For one of the best $14 entrees in town, Renae nestles slices of hanger steak alongside Gouda mashed potatoes and sauteed rainbow chard. The chard, of all things, turned out to be a table favorite, delivering as much richness as the blackened steak, which had been sliced a little thick. Sides of black-eyed peas, wilted greens and buttermilk corn bread actually did outshine a sous vide half-chicken, which had its succulent moments but too many dry patches.

Dessert at Fork & Wrench is limited, wisely I think, to a few homemade items. When we visited, they were homemade lava cake, creme brulee and homemade ice cream. Those choices sounded a little routine, but the lava cake is served with a luscious salted caramel sauce, and the creme brulee satisfied the fanatic at our table with its creamy coolness under the crackling top.

The black-clad staff at Fork & Wrench is thoroughly professional, anticipating needs and answering questions that are just forming in your head. When a charcuterie plate arrives, the server will patiently tour its contents with you. And later, gently positioned in your peripheral vision, he'll see that you have everything you need without interrupting your conversation.

For an instant hit like Fork & Wrench, the long-run challenge for the cool-cat staff will be to keep self-possession from curdling into indifference. Already, there is an odd reticence at reservation time about dining options at Fork & Wrench. Even in person, a hostess needed to be coaxed into showing us the different seating areas.

For now, though, Fork & Wrench is wearing its movie-star looks comfortably. Don't worry, it still feels like Baltimore — just a little more tucked in.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Fork & Wrench

Where: 2322 Boston St., Canton

Contact: 443-759-9360, http://www.theforkandwrench.com

Hours: Open daily for dinner and for weekend brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; entrees, $13-$23

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭ 1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]


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