Preserve, a smart, mostly winning and extremely loud American restaurant, opened in mid-April in the space on Main Street in Annapolis that was formerly home to Aqua Terra.
The restaurant's name refers, in part, to the restaurant's pickling and preserve program. And running through the menu, like a musical theme, are snippets of pickled items and preserved things. Pickled red jalapenos are tossed into the snap-pea salad, and there are shimmery bits of pepper jelly in the crispy kale.
But Preserve is not a pickle-theme restaurant. The full menu, a straightforward listing of snacks, starters and main courses, is heavy with homespun fare such as pork and sauerkraut, pierogi and Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie.
There is a scattering, too, of dishes like shrimp toast, cornmeal-crusted catfish and a charbroiled oyster casserole, food from some collectively remembered past.
The owners are first-time restaurateurs Michelle and Jeremy Hoffman, a married couple who met as students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Together, and separately, the Hoffmans have an impressive resume, full of well-regarded and successful Manhattan dining venues. There are some big-city ideas at play at Preserve, and when they work, the results are satisfying and entertaining.
There are standout dishes. We loved an appetizer of thinly sliced green tomatoes, which were served with dollops of mild goat cheese, thin-sliced onions and cubes of seasoned grilled bread — not croutons, but soft cubes, like you'd find in the Italian panzanella salad. Garnished with pea shoots and arranged on the plate with an artist's eye, this was a lovely summery treat.
And we were impressed with a gnocchi entree, which featured tiny little dough dumplings in a hozon broth. Made with chickpeas, hozon is a miso-like broth that Michelle Hoffman told us was originally created by David Chang for the ramen dishes at his trailblazing Manhattan restaurant Momofuko. Using gnocchi instead of noodles, and adding strips of crisped onions and lightly fried kale, is a nervy gamble, but Jeremy Hoffman made it work. This was an exceptional, and fortifying, vegetarian main course.
Our favorite dish of the night was a plate of crispy kale, which the kitchen sprayed with tiny bits of red onion and dotted with drops of cumin-spiced yogurt and mild pepper jelly. Each bite was a happy explosion of crunchy and soft textures and sharp and slightly sweet flavors.
Sometimes dishes came very close to full success but felt either underseasoned or underdeveloped, and you're not sure what to think. The fish in a cornmeal-crusted catfish entree tasted bland, even when you tried to place onto each forkful the accompanying mix of olives and peppers. And an entree of pork, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes felt like it needed a twist, something to remember it by. It was filling, and the potatoes were impressively soft and creamy, but it didn't work for us.
Two appetizers, the shrimp toast and the charbroiled oysters, were pleasurable in a greasy diner-food way but a little curious, too. The Old Bay aioli on the shrimp toast felt a little gratuitous, though — why not a play on duck sauce? — and the oysters' briny flavors get lost beneath a garlicky breading.
For dessert, the best option is a traditional bread pudding, served with a rich whiskey sauce. But it's hard to resist the Tandy Cake, Preserve's very convincing replica of a classic Tastykake treat: yellow cake with a strip of peanut butter beneath its chocolate icing. A third dessert, fresh ricotta topped with strawberry preserves and a pistachio granola, mystified us.
There is a well-thought out, compact list of beer, wine and spirits, which Michelle Hoffman is happy to help you with.
On a recent late-spring weeknight, diners were occupying every one of Preserve's 42 seats, both in the L-shaped dining area and at the bar. Preserve is the kind of sophisticated, simply decorated space — all clean lines and hard surfaces — in which people look glamorous in spite of themselves.
Sometimes the patrons at Preserve would become so engaged and happy that they would start screaming their happiness at each other across the table, everybody all at once. At least it seemed that way. Preserve has the kind of high energy that new restaurateurs dream about, and the decibel level will strike diners as a major plus or minus in equal numbers.
What helps soften the harsh sound level are the extremely outgoing, cheerful and well-informed young staff members, guided and inspired by Michelle Hoffman, who could conduct seminars on how to speak to customers.
Hoffman has a way of talking to diners that makes them feel respected and regarded. She gave us good advice about ordering wine and spirits from Preserve's clear and tidy wine list and helped us understand what made the strawberry jam that came with our early-course cheese plate so amazing.
And when Hoffman told us that waiting for our table in the bar area was not a good idea because we'd be hovering over diners enjoying their meals, she did so in a way that made us think we had thought of it ourselves and that we'd be looked after in the same way when we were dining. And we were.
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