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Entertainment Food & Dining

Table Talk: Mt. Washington Tavern will return with improvements

Mount Washington Tavern, which was gutted by a two-alarm fire last Halloween, expects to reopen by the middle of autumn, co-owner Rob Frisch said last week.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore City Fire Department has listed the cause of the fire as "not fully ascertainable."

That official listing does not suggest foul play. "It simply implies the damages and destruction was too great, which made it difficult and unsafe for investigators to narrow the cause to one specific source," said Chief Kevin Cartwright, Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman.

The tavern is a favorite among lacrosse players, as well as jockeys and horse trainers from nearby Pimlico. For years, some people's plans for attending the Preakness have been unthinkable without it.

After the fire, many said it was like losing a member of the family. Reconstruction, which has been chugging along since last year, is now at the midway point, Frisch said.

Frisch and co-owner Dave Lichty, who have worked at the tavern in several roles since they were teens, had wanted to re-open by May.

But the damage from the fire was staggering. The roof caved in. The kitchen was filled with debris. And in the garden, only "the retractable roof and some booze" was left, Frisch told The Baltimore Sun last year.

"We've been fortunate because we've had no snow or bad weather to speak off," Frisch said.

When the bar/restaurant reopens, fans will see some changes. The first floor, which was famously uneven, will all be one level. There will also be a second entrance so guests don't have to walk through the bar to get to the dining rooms.

The two dining rooms have been renamed and redecorated — one, to be called the Pimlico Room will be on the second floor and is decorated with memorabilia donated by jockeys and horse trainers. The room will feature a re-created mural of Old Hilltop that was in the original bar.

The second dining room, which has not been named yet, will have a nautical theme, Frisch said. And the outdoor "sky bar," which used to be seasonal, will be temperature-controlled and open year-round.

For those who want a personal stake in the new tavern, the owners have begun a project that lets fans buy bricks to be placed on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. All proceeds will go to the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital.

As for Preakness, Frisch said the tavern could host some kind of brunch on its parking lot, but that decision has not been made yet.

A PEARL OF AN OYSTER Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill is now offering its own oyster -- Avery's Pearls, named after Avery McComas, the younger daughter of the restaurant's owners, Jennifer and Brian McComas. (The restaurant was named after their elder daughter, Ryleigh.)

Avery's Pearls are a collaboration between Ryleigh's and the Shooting Point Oyster Co., a family-owned oyster farm located on Virginia's Eastern Shore. All aspects of their cultivation, from size, salinity levels, shape and overall appearance, were jointly developed in what the McComases say is a first-of-its-kind restaurant-farm partnership.

The result, they say, is an oyster that appeals to both the connoisseur and those unfamiliar with the bivalve. The size and salinity of Avery's Pearls are achieved in about 11/2 years, from seed to final culling. Their soft oval shape is achieved by strategically "tumbling" the oysters five times in its life cycle, creating a sturdy, petite but easily shuckable oyster.

Working with the McComases, Shooting Point's owner Tom Gallivan is directing quality control for Avery's Pearls. "The results have been positive thus far," says Gallivan. "Brian knows exactly what he wants Avery's Pearls to be."

"This partnership allows us to get a little more involved in what the ultimate end product will be — these oysters are very special to us," says Brian McComas.

For each Avery's Pearl purchased, a donation of 10 cents will be made to the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center, which conducts breast cancer research. "We lost a dear member of our family to breast cancer, and we decided this would be a fun way of remembering her with each and every oyster that goes across the raw bar," says Jennifer McComas. "The oyster has been really good to our family, and this is our way of paying it forward."

TRUE BLUE Is your Maryland crab cake true blue? Only a small number of restaurants in Maryland reliably make their crab cakes from local crab meat, and the state does not require restaurants to identify the specific source of the meat in crab cakes.

True Blue, a new labeling and promotion initiative from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, hopes to give restaurants that do use Maryland crab meat a claw up on those that fill their crab cakes with inexpensive meat from Indonesia and Venezuela.

The state is signing up participating restaurants and caterers now, and the program should be in place by Memorial Day, according to DNR Fisheries Marketing Director Steve Vilnit.

"Diners and seafood shoppers have let us know that it's hard for them to tell if they are buying true Maryland blue crab meat or not when ordering from menus or at the market," Vilnit said. The True Blue program will outfit participating restaurants with authorized True Blue logos, signage and labeling.

"We're not saying that imported crab meat can't be delicious. We just happen to believe that fresh Maryland crabs are better," Vilnit said.

Participating restaurants must commit to use exclusively Maryland crab meat to qualify for the program.

The idea for True Blue orgininated in part at a crab meat taste comparison conducted at Woodberry Kitchen for a Baltimore Sun article about the widespread use of imported crabmeat on Maryland menus. Spike Gjerde, the chef and co-owner of Woodberry Kitchen, remembers being struck with what he thought was the marked superiority of Maryland crabmeat to the imports. "I told Steve [Vilnit] that there should be a labeling program," Gjerde said.

For Gjerde, True Blue will be another way to communicate with diners about his restaurant's devotion to Maryland crab meat, without diners having to ask about where their crab meat is coming from. "It can be an awkward question at the table," Gjerde said.

Woodberry Kitchen received its first shipment of Maryland crabmeat Friday.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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