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Restaurant review

Food Market still draws crowds, delivers imaginative fare in Hampden

The Baltimore Sun

Doing its part to keep the cool in Hampden for six years now, the Food Market shows no signs of losing steam.

With a comfortable design highlighting wood, metal and exposed brick, this restaurant on the Avenue still manages the neat trick of being trendy and non-attitudinal. That balance helps you enjoy imaginative fare even when you find yourself frequently saying “huh?” to your dining companions as the place gets busy — this is one of those establishments that seems to thrive on crowd noise.

That aural challenge aside, it’s easy to understand the Food Market’s appeal. For one thing, there’s the downright playful side of the kitchen, where chef Chad Gauss has been a guiding light from the start.

You just have to smile when a plate of Amish soft pretzels — more like soft bread, really — arrives accompanied by a cute mini-mug containing delectably creamy cheese fondue that overflows, a la beer suds.

And how can you resist asking about something listed as “cracker smack,” especially since the menu encourages you to ask?

When it turns out to be a hipster variation on a vintage treat that rhymes with “cracker smack,” offering a salty, sugary, decadent combo of popcorn, nuts and what-not filling a saucepan (the handle makes it perfect for passing around the table), you just might feel like a kid again.

Before getting to the entree list, there are quite a few intriguing starters to consider, grouped by “little” and “small” (a size distinction lost on me). In addition to the pretzels and smack, we tried the lobster “boom boom,” a petite, bao bun-like sandwich containing a modest portion of crustacean with pickled vegetables in a lot of zesty sauce. Messy, but good.

On the daintier front, “beets by Chad” balances varieties of that veg with pieces of pears, orange, feta, arugula, pistachios and a hint of mint, moistened by a pomegranate vinaigrette. This elegant dish might convert the most beet-averse among you.

One of the main courses we sampled offered some of the most succulent, expertly grilled scallops I’ve tasted in years. The visual presentation warranted extra points — those scallops, gently coated by a light, bacon-y soubise sauce, were nestled against a pale green risotto of spring peas, snow peas and pea shoots. (That risotto unfortunately cooled off before arriving.)

The beef short rib impressed with its fork-tender texture and tangy-sweet flavor. Firm support came from whipped potatoes, carrots and a crisp onion ring. A likewise tender rack of lamb gained piquant snap from a Peruvian marinade; the accompanying veggies also had a kick, thanks to a touch of aji amarillo pepper.

I’m not sure why a menu item labeled “duck parts” would be thought of as appetizing (cow parts, anyone?), less sure how super-rare breast slices made it past the kitchen counter when we requested medium.

The effectively cooked leg, though, revealed a hearty flavor, balanced by the accompanying blackberry sauce. Blackberries and pecans brought additional visual charm and welcome texture to the plate; same for white asparagus and nicely whipped sweet potatoes.

Desserts were fun and filling, especially the Heath bar bread pudding. It didn’t turn out tasting too much of toffee candy, as feared, but was just a warm, richly flavored and moist cake, with a light caramel sauce lapping at its edges.

Another candy-evoking selection, the Reese’s peanut butter pie, delivered plenty of sweetness beneath a thick layer of chocolate. Also worth noting was the refreshing lemon basil whipped cheesecake, packed in a glass, parfait-like, with graham cracker crumble and strawberry rhubarb filling.

Not surprisingly, Food Market maintains quality in the beverage department, too. Cocktail specialties include the French Tease, a very gingery version of the traditional French 75, with Hendrick’s gin as a base. The bar prepares a high-octane old fashioned, too. And there’s a modest, moderately priced wine list; our affable, attentive server’s suggestion of a garnacha from Spain proved spot-on.

The Food Market — 4 stars

1017 W. 36th St., Hampden

410-366-0606, thefoodmarketbaltimore.com

Cuisine: New American

Prices: Appetizers $3 to $16; entrees $22 to $50

Ambience: As trendy as when it opened in 2012, with a mix of mostly casually attired millennials and folks of a certain age. The crowd noise may approach jet engine levels, but that doesn’t seem to faze anyone.

Service: Supple and personable

Reservations: Accepted

Parking: Street or valet

Special diets: They can be accommodated.

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

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