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Restaurant Review: Wit & Wisdom has its highs and lows

Wit & Wisdom, the promising restaurant in the new Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, calls itself a tavern. That it's not recognizably a tavern is what makes Wit & Wisdom, early on, both interesting and frustrating.

Riding a wave of publicity and excitement, it opened last month in the waterfront hotel in the posher-by-the-second Harbor East neighborhood.

The product of an experienced restaurant group, Wit & Wisdom — its formal name is Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina — is still in its awkward phase after a month of operation. Executive chef Benjamin Lambert's best ideas about American dining are undermined by others that feel extraneous. Exquisitely considered food competes for attention with perfunctory offerings. The potential for something truly wonderful is easy to see, but so are signs of competing agendas.

Fueling the enthusiasm behind Wit & Wisdom, the hotel's seven-day-a-week, three-meals-a-day dining facility, was the name attached to it. That would be Michael Mina, a James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur based in San Francisco, where his namesake restaurant has been lavished with praise (Esquire magazine's restaurant of the year) and Michelin stars.

The Baltimore restaurant is from the Mina Group, which operates 20 high-profile restaurants in competitive locales like Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Miami.

Wit & Wisdom is a new concept for the Mina Group, and it shows. There are moments when all of the competing intentions, motivations and impulses governing Wit & Wisdom converge, and you can feel the beautiful dining room come alive with electricity. But an evening here, at least for now, can also be a somewhat perplexing journey.

Here's what I found myself dwelling on when things weren't humming after two dinner visits and one at lunch. The dining room and its attached bar, appreciated as a whole, are gorgeous and uplifting, but up close, the wooden tables are unattractive and the table settings feel bare and under-considered. And in what could be the one of the city's most elegant gathering spots, the music selection is a steady diet of dusty hits from the late 1990s.

The most critical area of tension, though, is the menu, which combines dishes that feel like urgent news from highly creative chefs with tired and trite offerings that read like yesterday's headlines.

This competition between the marvelous and the mundane is more than just confusing. It has a practical effect. Because what you'll find is that the kitchen, with one notable exception, executes the menu's interesting and engaging dishes with flair, precision and enthusiasm. But the menu's duller dishes, some of which are Mina Group staples, seem to get the lack of attention they probably deserve.

At its enchanting core, the Wit & Wisdom menu is a creative take on regional American dining, with interesting and original twists on what the menu calls "Eastern seaboard classics." The best dishes, like an Amish rabbit entree and a Carolina "porridge" appetizer with duck's tongue, cracklins and Amish butter, are presented with enthusiasm, and you can taste the passion behind them. Both dishes are richly flavorful and satisfying, but they offer something more, an unexpected approach. With the rabbit entree, there's the pleasure of tasting Lambert's best ideas about the tricky rabbit. With the porridge, there's the joy seeing him make something luxurious out of spare parts.

The menu's main section is divided, by cooking method, into four sections of three entrees each — Griddled in Cast Iron Skillets, Oak-Fired Grill, From the Rotisserie, and Slow Cooked and Braised. Each entree within a section is sauced, sided and garnished alike.

The three skillet entrees, for instance, are served with a caper-hazelnut butter and roasted cauliflower, which turned out to be an especially delightful and fresh thing to do with a firm and flavorful fillet of farmed Carolina trout.

Wood-fired items like the bison and the rabbit are served, attractively, with an enveloping puree of caramelized sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts and slivers of crisp green apples. The bison, sourced locally, as much of the menu is, was lusciously buttery and full flavored. The rabbit entree, a standout, comprises a cornmeal-breaded loin, a delicate and milky rabbit sausage and a confit made from the rabbit forelegs. It's the kind of dish you'll find yourself thinking about.

There are a few dishes, like the rotisserie-cooked Amish chicken breast and the slow-braised lamb shoulder, that come across as lackluster and under-seasoned, as though you should love the food for its authenticity. And there are others, mostly appetizers like meatballs with polenta and a crab gratin, that offer not one new bit of flavor. They are decent but very familiar, and they effectively slow a meal's momentum.

On the other hand, so much love and labor clearly goes into the signature porchetta entree that you feel bad that the kitchen seems to be struggling with its execution.

At its least compelling, Wit & Wisdom presents an appetizer like lobster corn dogs, which are not very tasty and served for no good reason in a cast-iron skillet. (Wit & Wisdom serves more items than it should in cast-iron dishes, only some of which are prepared in them, and this begins to feel gimmicky.)

The evening's only lowest point, unfortunately, comes early, when diners are just getting to know Wit & Wisdom. The chilled shellfish platter, a signature Mina Group appetizer, makes a bad first impression. Consisting of only a half-dozen oysters and one cracked lobster tail, the "platter" is presented, inelegantly, in a single soup bowl, and what should be a grand opening flourish lands like a lead balloon. If only they served the maple custard from the dessert menu as an appetizer instead. Laced with orange toffee, Marcona almonds and bourbon, it's the highlight of Wit & Wisdom's smart and seasonal dessert menu.

For a tavern meal that will run about $75 a person, Wit & Wisdom offers in return a large and energetic staff that includes captains and sommeliers with useful things to say about the lengthy wine list. At the table, the service can be tentative and occasionally off-the-beat. Bread was offered during one dinner but not at another. At the very busy and apparently already popular bar, there are both exemplary bartenders and others who haven't yet acquired peripheral vision.

The big attraction at Wit & Wisdom is, of course, Wit & Wisdom itself, which can call itself whatever it wants, so long as people feel they're getting their money's worth.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Wit & Wisdom

Where: 200 International Drive, Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore

Contact: 410-576-5800, http://www.witandwisdombaltimore.com

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$19; entrees, $18-$44

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

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

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