Restaurant review: Don't overlook the food at Bond Street Social

Bond Street Social is off to a good, swaggering start. The Fells Point newcomer wants to be destination not only for evening dining but for late-night carousing, too. If early indications are reliable, it will manage to have it all.

In Baltimore, the bar for success is set hilariously low for this kind of multi-use establishment. Simply by not being rank amateurs or greedy knuckleheads, the people behind Bond Street Social moved to the head of the pack on opening day.

This cavernous restaurant space in the Bond Street Wharf was originally home to DuClaw Brewing Co., whose otherwise successful sports bar concept never quite took in Fells Point. Bond Street Social has transformed the space into a sexy urban playground, with free-standing fireplaces, dark wood floors and expansive views of the Fells Point street scene. It's handsome but not overbearing. There's an especially nice breakup of the space into different areas; for now, the large room closest to Thames Street is the de facto main dining room.

The chef for Bond Street Social is Neill Howell, formerly the chef de cuisine at Stanton Social in New York City. For now, Bond Street Social appears to be giving the talented Howell free rein. Howell's opening menu is lovely and engaging, and at least until 9 o'clock every evening, Bond Street Social belongs to him. After 9 p.m., a disc jockey starts playing, and the dining rooms gradually begin their nightly transformation into a club scene. The menu continues to be served, but the food merits a diner's full attention. Show up for dinner early, say 7 p.m., when couples on dates and nearby businessmen share the dining room.

Howell's menu is separated into two main sections: Bites, which range from $7 to $12, and Fork and Knife, a bigger-portion section whose items range from $13 to $22. There are, in addition, small sections of salads, sides and sliders. All of the menu items are intended for sharing, part of Bond Street Social's stated mission of "taking social to a whole new level."

The plates, across the board, look great. Howell wasn't working when I visited, I learned later. Credit him with creating a menu that a well-trained staff can reproduce quickly and consistently. And if you've ever tried to split up three bite-size appetizers four ways, you'll love this. Many of Bond Street's dishes are portioned for three people to share, but servers are trained to ask whether the table would prefer to have it portioned for four people — for a few dollars more, of course.

Among the smaller plates, I loved the arepas, corn cakes typically stuffed with savory meats and cheeses, but sometimes topped with them, as they here, with luscious pulled pork. A smidge of avocado cream, a sliver of Manchego cheese and a peck of pickled onion are deployed perfectly, and it's good to see a kitchen not afraid of a little grease and a little fat. That's what made the duck spring rolls such a pleasure, too. The wrappers are fried up well, and the filling, which is nothing but good duck, is seasoned assertively.

Howell's foie gras PB&J is a charmer. Cunningly constructed, with shaved pear, crushed peanut brittle and blackberry jam, it would work better as an amuse-bouche (granted, an expensive one), but I think its novelty might wear off as regular menu item. I found it more interesting than delicious, and ended up searching for the taste of foie gras below a strong peanut flavor and a grape jelly aftertaste.

For sheer good looks, the early winner is linguine and clams, tossed with parsleyed brioche breadcrumbs and served in polished Cherrystone clam shells. Some stronger clam flavor, or a splash of oil, would have rocketed this into orbit. Artichoke fritters, served with a roasted garlic aioli, are crunchy outside, rich and fresh-tasting inside, but don't seem essential.

The Fork and Knife offerings get meatier and heartier but not necessarily more substantial. The Social fish and chips, crunchy cod served on top of Old Bay hash browns, sided with a sharp cabbage slaw, is a fantastically executed dish. Four pieces vanish too fast; I nominate this to be Bond Street Social's first big-boy entree, a thing not to be shared.

About the chicken and biscuits, I'll say that I enjoyed the butter-soaked cheddar biscuit a bit more than the buttermilk-fried chicken on top of it. I loved every bite I could get of skillet-roasted lobster "pot pie," where the precisely handled mirepoix, deep roux and flaky crust show off expert prep work. The flavors on a chimichurri-dressed, pepper-and-salt-encrusted grilled hanger steak are all accounted for, but the presentation could use a visual boost. The steak gets lost in its skillet.

Dessert is a four-item list. Compared to what's come before, mini ice-cream sandwiches look plain, but they're perfect little things. A stacked brownie, topped with salted caramel, was lovely enough for a friend to take home to his wife.

Will the all-things-shared format last at Bond Street Social? I don't think mixing in a few bona fide entrees would detract from the mission. I hope Neill Howell sticks around, though. He's worth knowing.

Bond Street Social

Where: 901 S. Bond St., Fells Point

Contact: 443-449-6234,

Hours: Dinner Monday through Saturday and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$14; entrees, $12-$22

Food: ✭✭✭ 1/2

Service: ✭✭✭ 1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

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

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