Fork & Wrench opened 31/2 years ago and quickly became one of the city's hottest reservations. Diners could not get enough of the Canton restaurant's creative American food or its cool space, outfitted with a wild collection of retro objects.
A few years — and a few chefs — later, some of the buzz around Fork & Wrench has dissipated. Though it's still popular, reservations are easier to come by. But the restaurant remains just as charming, and the food just as interesting, as ever.
The multi-floor space, with its small dining rooms and artsy vibe, hasn't changed. We dined in a high-ceilinged room lined with old books and located a few steps up from the main floor bar. On our way to the table, we passed a variety of no-longer-relevant pieces of technology, from a funky typewriter to a rotary phone.
The kitchen still turns out well-conceived, seasonally driven dishes, but the selection has evolved.
The chef behind those plates is Ben Sawyer, formerly of Salt Tavern in Butchers Hill. He had big shoes to fill; his predecessors, including Sajin Renae, who opened Fork & Wrench, and Cyrus Keefer, who is now at 13.5% Wine Bar, earned heaps of praise for their cooking. Sawyer deserves applause for his, too.
His dishes are complicated, but not precious or convoluted; each one features a combination of ingredients that surprises both in flavor and texture.
Grilled octopus, tender and slightly smoky, paired neatly with fatty, garlicky rounds of the Portuguese sausage linguica. But the most arresting thing about the plate was the contrast between the warm octopus and sausage and the cool white beans underneath. The play on temperature was risky — it would be lost if the dish wasn't consumed immediately — but we loved the payoff.
Chicken livers, tossed in kung pao sauce and topped with peanuts and skinny chili peppers, were more crowd-pleasing than we expected. The livers were cooked beautifully and lent themselves to the intense sauce. Our only quibble was that we might have liked the sauce a touch sweeter — but only a touch.
Creamy burrata had just been made in-house by Fork & Wrench's manager, Ingrid French; she stopped by the table and was clearly proud of her work. She had every right to be: The cheese was milky and gorgeous. Served with a scattering of watercress, soft quarters of red plum and crispy bits of candied fennel, and drizzled with sweet, tangy vincotto — a wine syrup that, here, took the place of a splash of vinegar — the plate was summery and fabulous.
Entrees were just as thoughtfully developed, though a roasted black bass did yield the night's one disappointment: The fish was a bit overcooked. Though we loved its well-seasoned skin and the accompaniments — cauliflower, bright romesco sauce and an inspired dressing that included whole smoked mussels — we wished the fish itself had been pulled from the heat just a minute earlier.
A pair of tiny quail, dressed with chunky fig "salsa," balsamic vinegar and pancetta, was a home run. The birds were cooked nicely and the time-honored mix of sweet and salty flavors was terrific. What put the quail over the top, though, was a scattering of small bits of almond. In addition to mild nuttiness, they gave the dish appealing crunch. One of Sawyer's greatest strengths is his attention not just to flavor, but to texture.
Drinks, including the bracing Shift Kicker, a mix of gin, elderflower liqueur, peach bitters and lime, and a blueberry-and-gin combo named after Willy Wonka's Violet Beauregarde, were as thoughtful as the food. Both well-balanced and bright, they had obviously been made with care.
The wine list, though not long, is reasonably priced and has located the sweet spot between interesting and familiar. Our waiter liked our order, a bottle of Argento Bonarda from Mendoza, Argentina. He told us the red was one of the more food-friendly choices on the list; even with the fish, it worked.
As we lingered over coffee and two very likable desserts — lemon curd-filled doughnuts and tart cheesecake mousse served with strawberry-rhubarb jam — we watched both French and our waiter move from table to table, chatting about the food.
The service, from pacing to personality, was excellent. There was nothing pretentious or standoffish about anyone at Fork & Wrench; they were engaged and excited about what was on the plate.
Almost four years after its opening, some of Fork & Wrench's brand-new restaurant hype has worn off. But with solid talent in the kitchen and a continued attention to detail on the service front, the restaurant deserves renewed attention and another round of applause.
Nearby reviews: DishBaltimore.com - Canton/Highlandtown