I like Pen & Quill, the new restaurant on the corner of Charles and Lanvale streets in Station North. It's pretty and comfortable, and the food, from executive chef Bella Kline, is tasty, rib-sticking and satisfying.
I sure like it a heckuva lot better than The Chesapeake, which was the name of the previous restaurant that occupied this space. The Chesapeake, which lasted for less than a year, should not be confused with another similarly named establishment, Chesapeake Restaurant, a dining institution that flourished on this corner in the middle of the last century.
You know the story — it's the great American novel. Chesapeake Restaurant stayed around too long and was eventually ignored, auctioned and sold before it was closed and sat empty for decades.
A few years back, some developers bought it from the city. These developers are the ones who, having tried and failed with the new Chesapeake, had the good sense to shut it down and restart with outside operators, namely the Karzais, the Baltimore-based restaurateurs behind The Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in Mount Vernon, and Tapas Teatro, a soon-to-be-expanding Spanish joint next door to Pen & Quill.
In truth, the short-lived Chesapeake was more disappointment than disaster, an illustration of what happens when very good intentions aren't supported by experience.
The Karzais knew just what to do with the big, rectangular ground-floor space. They adjusted some wall treatments, fixed some lighting effects and took out the odd half-wall divider that all but guaranteed that its predecessor would never produce the kind of good vibes and electricity that people hoped for from this gateway property in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
They also strategically pivoted a row of half-moon booths that formerly faced a void so that it now faces the room's central axis — a subtle but hugely effective maneuver that makes a world of difference. The room feels right now, a place to gather with friends for a long happy hour or a late dinner.
At the bar, or in the dining room, you can pick at snacks like deviled eggs, dressed up with red beads of roe and crisp shards of salmon skin, and an early hit, steamed buns filled with tender beef tongue, dressed with cool tzatziki and vinegared vegetables.
From there, you can gather a few small plates or commit to a full-scale entree, which comes full-plated with side dishes.
In the long term, the entree list might need some expanding, contracting, or just fine-tuning. Entrees of pork cheeks and porchetta seem redundant on a menu with no lamb chops.
But for the short run, there's plenty to ponder, order and enjoy — that porchetta entree, for instance, is fantastic, served as a meat-lover's casserole, with blood sausage and smoked ham hock, made handsome with squat little Thumbelina carrots and butterfly slices of Asian pear. We wouldn't mind seeing the truffle orecchiette with chanterelles, melted leeks and Grana Padano cheese again, although next time maybe as a shared pasta course instead of a main entree. The flavors were good but monotonous.
And there's the Chicken Maryland, a contender for your diet-be-damned dish of the year, a country supper serving of breaded chicken, prepared roulade style, smothered with pan-made chicken gravy and accompanied by slices of super-moist corn bread, strips of sticky, fatty lardons and, to top it all off — because it really needed something with calories — lengthwise slices of fried banana.
Pen & Quill is not what you'd call a fussy place, but there are some good, delicate moments. A halibut crudo, from the menu's small-plates section, is thinly sliced and served with all sorts of bright, dark and intense things — enoki mushrooms, black garlic and daikon radish. Also from the small plates, floppy and light ravioli stuffed with sweet corn and served with sauteed summer squash in a confit tomato beurre fondu, which is a fancy way of saying roasted tomatoes in melted butter. We'll take it.
We'll also take the super-accessible list of wines by the glass — no agenda here, just good, affordable choices, mostly from France; and the taut, smart lineup of draft beers from Baltimore and beyond.
I can see where Pen & Quill could become a thing. On a weeknight, I saw actual artists at the bar, talking about art even.
For now, the hours seem shortish, and you wish they'd stay open a bit later, so people coming out of the Charles Theatre can stop in for pastry chef Michael Plitt's outstanding creations — oh, my gosh, the dark and milk chocolate cremosas (think square little chocolate pockets) with toasted marshmallows and nut brittle, or, just lovely, Formosa plums with peppercorn buttermilk cake and ginger citrus crisps.
There's a nice, finishing list of after-dinner cocktails and spirits, too. Perfect for toasting the promising revival that is Pen & Quill.
Pen & Quill
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 1701 N. Charles St., Station North
Contact: 410-601-3588, penandquill.net
Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$18; entrees: $13-$27
Food: American bistro food
Service: On-point and well-informed.
Parking: On-street parking and in nearby paid lots.
Children: Children are welcome, and the kitchen is happy to adjust menu items.
Special diets: The kitchen can accommodate most dietary restrictions.
Noise level/televisions: Two televisions over the bar are turned on, with volume off, for major events like Orioles games.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]