Almost four years in, B&O American Brasserie, the restaurant inside the Hotel Monaco, has established itself as a worthy citizen of Baltimore. Before it came along, downtown dining options were scarce, especially at night, both for visitors and the hometown crowd.
Now, nearby office workers have a handsome and uplifting after-work destination, a smartly designed space within an impressive 13-story Beaux Arts building, once the headquarters of the B&O Railroad and now part of the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurant Group. We've seen the brasserie's lower-level space packed to the rafters at happy hour. But even at its most raucous, there's comfort and quiet for diners on the upper-level loft.
Bradley Willits is the third executive chef here. He follows E. Michael Reidt and Thomas Dunklin, who have both moved on to other Kimpton positions. Willits is only 31 but has more than 20 years of restaurant experience, beginning at his father's cafe in Sarasota, Fla. Based on his first menu, Willits is giving himself time to absorb and appreciate Maryland's cuisine. Among the entrees, there's a Maryland rockfish alongside a Florida snapper. And Willits' two best appetizers are a splendid offering of bison from Monkton's Gunpowder Farms and a sterling composition of imported burrata.
I like this approach — working in local cuisine gradually, only as you get to know it, not forcing things. It makes for an engaging dining experience, too, when a chef is playing by his own rules.
Do get the burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. Willits' preparation manages to both leave the burrata's best luxurious qualities intact while adding notes of surprising texture (from roasted hazelnuts) and flavor (a nutty Romesco sauce). Likewise, it's the bison that stars in its own appetizer, but the egg-yolk horseradish vinaigrette, pickled ramps, buttery rye toasts and peppery mizuna leaves play essential supporting roles.
We liked the impulse behind a chilled strawberry soup, flavored with lime, cilantro and basil. It would work fine in a small dose, paired with something else, but a bowl of it was way too much. It's too intense.
And it was hard to untie the independent flavors in a smoked shrimp agnolotti appetizer. We licked up the sea urchin butter, but the carrot-cardamom puree kept fighting for attention, and our tongues never did pick up the taste of smoked shrimp inside the pasta.
The sauteed snapper, all of its sweet and delicate qualities shining, was the best of the entrees. Willits served it, jewel-like, in a setting of marinated tomatoes, marinated jumbo asparagus and a puree of white asparagus. Perfectly grilled thyme-basted scallops were excellent, too, and the plate's other ingredients — hen of the woods mushrooms, leeks and bacon sausage — were intriguing certainly and random maybe.
The new menu has a permanent space for steak frites. It could use some editing. Diners have a choice of steaks (skirt, bison rib-eye and strip), sauces (bearnaise, au poivre and Worcestershire) and even preparations of fries (Old Bay, onion gravy or truffle-manchego cheese). We went with the bison, au poivre and truffle manchego, which won awards for Willits back in Florida. The bison was superb, the fries crisp and sunny but not mind-blowing, and the sauce irrelevant.
The other entree, a smoked pork shoulder, served at room temperature with plums, turnips, market beans and bacon jam, just didn't seem like dinnertime fare. It would work better at lunch as a cold platter or reworked into a sandwich.
Only a few things at B&O feel corporately weird, like the theatrical presentation of the wine-and-cocktail book. And the desserts come across as a list of gimmicks with things like cheesecake ice cream sundae with banana croutons and espresso pot de creme with candied bacon chips. We tried a herby lemon-thyme doughnut, which was underbaked, and shared a root beer float, which was a tasty ice cream treat but not a float.
The chef shifts at B&O have been handled well. But if it's consistency you want, head for the bar, which has been superintended from the start by Brendan Dorr, the star of Baltimore's craft cocktail scene. Dorr was up to his wonderful tricks when we visited. Order his Coal Train, the peatiest cocktail you'll ever love.
B&O American Brasserie
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 2 N. Charles St., downtown
Contact: 443-692-6172, bandorestaurant.com
Open: Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers $10-$14; entrees $18-$30
Food: Seasonally changing American regional cuisine
Service: Steady, knowledgeable
Best dishes: Gunpowder Farms chopped bison, sauteed Florida snapper, thyme-basted scallops
Parking: $5 valet parking in addition to on-street parking, which becomes easier to find after 6 p.m.
Children: A children's menu is always available.
Noise level/television: The lower level can get brassy when its full; the upper level is always comfortable. A large TV screen in the front lounge shows vintage movies with the sound off. No TVs in upper dining room.
Special diets: The staff is knowledgeable of menu items that are gluten free, and kitchen can accommodate allergies.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]