Step into Black Kettle in Catonsville, and you feel like you've been transported to a quaint European bistro. Mirrors are fashioned like windows with flowers boxes, tiny lights are strung across the ceiling, lanterns hang on the walls and murals create Old World ambience. It's a charming setting.
The food is just as interesting and nurturing, focusing on healthful soups and New American fare. And its chef-owner, Kevan Vanek, brings his own intriguing story to the table.
He is a classically trained opera singer who majored in government history at the College of William and Mary and trained with French chefs along the way. He landed in Catonsville with his wife, Noelle, before taking over a Mount Airy restaurant, now called Bolder and under new ownership.
"It was in the middle of nowhere. It was tough," Vanek said. "I saw an opportunity and thought I would love to be in my hometown."
He transformed a former Mexican restaurant on Frederick Road, Catonsville's main street, and opened Black Kettle in October 2015, where he is a hands-on chef turning out lunch and dinner dishes.
The restaurant seats about 60 customers, including at stools at the friendly front bar, where a variety of spirits, cocktails and beers are offered. The wine list is thoughtful, with dozens of bottles and several by the glass.
We visited on an early evening and started our meal with a grilled oyster sampler featuring six mesquite-grilled bivalves with three different toppings. The spirited Thai chile and herb dressing worked the best atop the plump, juicy oysters.
The Rockefeller with kale and the Chesapeake coatings were lackluster, though, and didn't live up to typical preparations. We couldn't taste any crab on the Chesapeake, and the other had an indistinguishable sauce. Maybe the green flecks were kale.
The Thai shrimp and crab spring rolls were a much better beginning. The delicate rice paper wrappers were bulging with their seafood fillings and enhanced with a Thai peanut dip and a lightly spiced soy-ginger sauce.
The salad we chose was terrific. A beautiful pile of fennel, mache, watercress and arugula was sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries and moistened with a subtle pumpkin oil vinaigrette. The mound was topped with a sprinkle of Israeli couscous and hearts of palm.
Black Kettle's soups are inspired creations, made with rich broths, stocks and other ingredients. The seafood medley, served in an appropriate black pot, was captivating. The deeply flavored bouillabaisse and miso broth, laced with fresh herbs, embraced a cavalcade of mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari, octopus, vermicelli and spinach. Two stuffed cabbages floated teasingly on top, adding another flavor dimension.
Other kettle choices include braised Angus beef in a beef-Cognac broth, crispy duck and chicken in a lemony chicken broth, and a minestrone-style soup with tofu.
"I love sauces and soups," Vanek said. "That's my passion."
His beautifully presented main plates are intriguing — from a vegetarian lasagna to a peppered Kobe sirloin. Specials on our visit ranged from veal porterhouse to a Maryland bison steak. There is also an array of burgers.
A pot roast may seem plebeian, but in Vanek's kitchen, the dish's complex flavors take it to another station in life. We were enthralled with his version of this Sunday supper comfort food. His beef short ribs were braised in red wine and glazed with a sweet-tangy pomegranate barbecue sauce. The succulent meat was draped across a cauliflower and broccoli broth with roasted vegetables on the side.
The dining room was filled by the end of our meal, and as our waitress became busy with other tables, staff members stepped in when needed, impressing us with their team spirit.
Desserts are made in house, our server told us, with the exception of the "wedding cake," a triple-layer, white cake wedge with buttercream frosting and a raspberry drizzle. The confection, made by nearby SugarBakers Cakes, is an homage to a cake served at Kevan and Noelle Vanek's wedding. The romantic offering was fanciful and delicious.
Another dessert, described as a warm caramel-filled pear with caramel sauce and creme anglaise, looked divine when served. But one bite revealed that it had cooled or hadn't been heated enough, diminishing its taste and texture.
The few mishaps didn't affect the overall quality of Kevan Vanek's creative ministrations. He's giving diners well-executed dishes for a reasonable price.
It's food worth singing about.