I am a great fan of chef Jesse Sandlin. I've been eating her terrific food for almost 10 years at various restaurants.
She is now cooking contemporary American dishes at The Outpost American Tavern in Federal Hill, which opened in early March, replacing Porter's Pub.
The restaurant, which went through a cosmetic update, looks similar to the previous tenant — think dark wood and red brick. But it seems brighter with unadorned windows looking out onto the street.
Baltimoreans who haven't sampled Sandlin's dishes may remember her appearance on Bravo's "Top Chef" in 2009. She was eventually eliminated from the cooking competition, but the Charm City native returned home in good standing.
Sandlin has worked at several restaurants, including Petit Louis, Jokers 'n Thieves (now Southern Provisions), and the defunct Abacrombie Inn and Oliver Speck's Eats & Drinks.
When I invited friends to join me at Outpost on a recent weeknight, I had great expectations, but we had a bumpier experience than anticipated. While a lot of the food was solid and delicious, some of the dishes were badly scorched.
I'm pretty sure the kitchen was slammed that night. The restaurant, which seats 75 and doesn't take reservations, was packed. We claimed the last booth in the dining room next to the bar area, which serves interesting wines, beers (drafts, bottles and cans) and pretty cocktails like a classic martini, a Manhattan and a honey-pear mule.
The wait between courses was long, and our dinner took about 21/2 hours. Our busy waiter was conscientious and courteous throughout the evening, until he flubbed the bill at the end (which he eventually remedied).
The arrival of our appetizers — three of four — was the first sign that our meal was going to be uneven. The grilled oysters Rockefeller were like an ugly baby — we smiled politely. There were three tiny specimens on a plate, with a promise from a runner that two more were on their way. In the meantime, the ones that stared bleakly at us didn't look appetizing, as the spinach topping had spilled onto the serving dish and formed a charred greenish-brown crust.
In contrast, when the missing oysters were delivered on a separate plate, they were plump and delicious with bacon, herb butter and a spinach puree that hadn't escaped messily onto the dish.
Two of our other starters were outstanding. The avocado toast with sprouts and pickled red onions got a flavor boost with a sunny-side-up egg draped over it. And the ham-and-cheese croquettes were gooey, fried orbs that were even better when dipped into the spicy mustard aioli.
When our fourth appetizer, Cuban waffle sliders, finally came to the table, we were surprised that one of them was burned on top. The other slider, which escaped such misery, was quite good. The cornmeal-waffle sandwich housed luxurious slices of country ham, braised pork, Jarlsberg cheese, pickles and spicy mustard.
After another lag, our entrees made their appearance, again just three of them. We really liked the house-ground burger for its simplicity — a great beef patty, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo on a bun with a pile of hot fries. The shrimp po' boy was another winner with crispy shrimp, sturdy pickles and roasted tomatoes drizzled with a perky tartar sauce.
The marinated, sous-vide beef in the skirt-steak frites was too chewy but was helped by a slick of sultry chimichurri, the thick herb sauce popular in Argentina. The fries were thicker than traditional frites but still good.
The late-arriving port-o-pot pie should have been pulled out of the oven sooner. The crust was blackened in spots. The insides appeased us with an abundance of portobello mushrooms, carrots, onions, celery and spinach, but it could have used more mushroom cream.
When we flagged our server for a dessert menu, he told us they would be on the house since we had waited so long for our meal. Even after we said that wasn't necessary, he insisted.
After 20 minutes with no desserts showing up, we asked for the check. Our waiter quickly returned with a dessert we think was the Napoleon Dynamite — a version of the classic pastry with a fruit sauce and creme anglaise — and a bill charging us for four desserts.
He eventually realized the error and came back with another incorrect bill before grabbing it from me and exchanging it for the final correct total. Our heads were spinning at his sleight of hand. It was a slapdash scene right out of a Marx Brothers movie.
For the record, the other desserts available that night, as listed on my check, were banana peanut butter, chocolate cake and coffee cake, which are made in house.
It's not unusual for a restaurant to suffer growing pains. And this popular neighborhood spot has a lot of potential.
I have every confidence that all will be righted. After all, Jesse Sandlin is in the kitchen.