Fork & Wrench in Canton calls itself a “boutique dive bar” on its website. But that description doesn’t really fit.
It’s much more of a restaurant after five years in operation. Even Andy Gruver, one of the owners with Jason Sanchez, agrees.
“When it first opened, the idea was that there weren’t many gastropubs or comfortable bars to get good food,” he said. “That’s changed drastically.”
The restaurateurs, who also operate Modern Cook Shop in Fells Point, recently brought in a new executive chef, Corey Laub, to continue its food focus. Laub, a Columbia native, previously worked at Novo in Chicago and area restaurants like Aida Bistro & Wine Bar. He’s preparing creative New American fare that matches Fork & Wrench’s eclectic decor.
The multilevel space, decked out in assorted knickknacks, drew applause for its quaint, retro look when it opened in 2012. But on a recent visit, I was struck by how the vintage books, typewriter and giant birdcage didn’t look as charming as they did years ago. The hodgepodge now seems fusty.
We were seated at a table in the lounge within shouting distance of the bar, near an iron bank door that had been scavenged from another building. Our attentive server, who was tending to drinks that night, was terrific.
Fork & Wrench still concocts an array of cocktails, like a Shift Kicker with Bluecoat gin, St-Germain, peach bitters and soda, and a classic Sazerac with rye, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters and Herbsaint. Wines by the glass and bottle and a variety of beers, including Belgian ales, are also available.
The modest menu detailed 10 first plates (appetizers) and six second plates (entrees). Our dishes hit several high notes, though there were some rough patches.
The beef tartare delivered a delectable spread. A disk of rough-ground raw meat benefited from a simple quail yolk that broke like a tiny water balloon over the contents amid fried capers and a puddle of horseradish cream.
The beet and Burrata salad looked sloppy with a gob of creamy cheese and pickled beets placed haphazardly on a mound of local greens glazed with vincotto (a sweet cooked wine syrup). But the combination of mellow and piquant flavors was a standout along with a crunch of pine nuts.
The earthy roasted mushrooms saved the doughy potato gnocchi, which were also redeemed by a rich Parmesan broth and a brilliant pairing with salsa verde.
There was no saving the drab, tough shrimp and scallop ceviche. Maybe the temporarily closed Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, can get away with serving a dish called “edible earth,” but I don’t think Baltimore is ready for “olive soil,” one of the ceviche’s ingredients.
Seared rockfish was advertised on the menu, but our waitress informed us that the chef was using tilefish that night. I appreciated being told about the switch. The mild fillet was a good substitute and worked well with the brown-butter cauliflower, silky carrot puree and sauteed kale.
We liked what the chef did with the seared scallops, enhancing the golden orbs with a nutty-tasting puree, a tangle of Asian greens and a sweet-tangy raisin agrodolce.
The burger was everything a beef patty should be — plump, juicy and flavorful. Smoked Gouda cheese and pickled shallots were strong partners, and the simply dressed side salad sparked the plate with greenery. Still, $20 is a lot for a pad of meat and a bun.
The corn risotto was a fail, despite its ambitions with corn puree, scallions, radish slices, chili oil and a bountiful shower of queso fresco. The undercooked rice was unpleasantly chewy.
The desserts, though, were clever and fun. We liked the kitchen’s play with traditional expectations.
The popcorn panna cotta gave new meaning to the movie-theater treat with a lime puree, caramel and a malted sorghum crumble. Don’t try to understand it. Just enjoy it.
The blonde budino was another inventive sweet with chocolate pop rocks, matcha sugar and ginger whipped cream. And the peach butter cake, nestled in a lemon-honey sauce, delivered blissful bites with whipped mascarpone and sangria sorbet.
Fork & Wrench is taking chances with its cuisine, and we’re optimistic it will hit its stride under the new chef. We’re not giving up on this Baltimore innovator.
Fork & Wrench
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 2322 Boston St., Canton
Contact: 443-759-9360, theforkandwrench.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday (brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$14; entrees, $20-$28.
Food: New American
Noise/TVs: The restaurant was nearly empty on our midweek visit, creating a quiet atmosphere; three TVs (not turned on).
Service: Our waitress was cheerful and efficient.
Parking: Street parking, or valet parking on Friday and Saturday
Special diets: Can accommodate but would appreciate notice with reservations.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes, on the first floor, with staff assistance up a small front step.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]