I loved Bluegrass when it opened in 2010, but I loved it even more on a recent visit because it seems to have hit its stride.
Some of the improvement at Bluegrass has been from the natural mellowing that happens with good materials. Some of it has been more conscious. A new chef has brought new ideas and styles.
When Bluegrass opened in 2010, the Southern-inspired menu from Patrick Morrow was filled with rabbit and antelope, bacon jam, pickled okra and deviled eggs. It was a natural fit for the bourbon-smoked, cozy atmosphere, and it made a convincing statement.
When Morrow left one year after Bluegrass opened, Ray Kumm stepped in and introduced some interesting Asian notes to the all-American menu before moving a few months ago to Brewer's Art.
The kitchen is now being run by Timothy Dyson, whose resume includes Peabody Court, Kali's Court and a previous stint at Bluegrass. Dyson has incorporated elements of French country cuisine into the Bluegrass menu without changing its Southern accent.
The food has always been good here. It's just easier to find it now. Dyson's menu is simple and cohesive. You're likely to find and order dishes you might have overlooked in the old menu format, a thicket of categories like large bites, extra-large bites and so on.
The current menu divides into appetizers and entrees, and a table of four, working together, can hit all of the highlights.
For appetizers, you'll want the roasted baby pumpkin, baked oysters and smoked catfish mousse. From the entrees, you'll want, absolutely, the braised lamb ragu, the roasted squab, and then some combination of cold-smoked fried chicken, fish and grits, blackened salmon and grilled Duroc pork chop.
Unless you're not too hungry, in which case you could go instead for a burger or an open-face sandwich of cider-braised pulled pork. And then, of course, there's the charcuterie platter.
OK, you might need six people, or two visits.
That roasted baby pumpkin, served whole, is one of the tastiest and prettiest appetizers of the year — go ahead and photograph it. Softened and brightened with goat cheese and squash mousse, the pumpkin's flesh is topped with crispy shallots and a cascade of microgreens. All of it except the stem is edible.
Served in the shell, oysters are baked bubbly with braised greens, slices of cured duck, and cheddar, topped with a swirl of creamy white Tabasco aioli. They're gorgeous, too, and delicious. A nest of vivid red microgreens adds drama to a perfectly seasoned mousse of smoked catfish. The greens, we learned, are named bull's blood.
Dyson also has calves' brains and trotters on the menu. The brains are made nonscary in an apple-sage bread pudding laced with black truffle and spiked with a cider gastrique. You might not know you're eating brains. With the trotters, on the other hand, you'll have no doubt you're eating a pig's hoof. Dyson slow-braises the hoof and stuffs it with cherries — are you still with me?
They ran out of trotters on a recent visit, so we're still curious. But I'd flip the preparations — saute the brains simply and fritter up the trotters beyond recognition.
I had few second guesses for the entrees, though, where the preparation choices are spot on, beginning with the gently fried gnocchi, made from root vegetables, that came with red wine-braised lamb ragu. We were mad for this dish, and for the Duroc pork chop, brined, grilled and served and sliced with parsnip gratin and bacon-braised greens.
Marvelously crispy fried chicken thighs are cold-smoked before frying, which gives every bite below the crispy skin full, rich flavor. Catfish is battered with cornmeal, fried lightly, and served with grits blended thoroughly with clothbound cheddar cheese — they're perfect — and tomato-pepper gravy that a dash of salt would have perked up.
There have been changes in management. Kelli Kulnich and Christopher Coker, both of whom have been with Bluegrass from the beginning, have enlarged roles. Both are passionate about introducing diners to special wines and spirits. Bourbon is big at Bluegrass, and these days, so is rye.
A shot of rye, poured right on top, was perfect for a slab of luscious pecan pie, the highlight of Bluegrass' compact dessert menu.
Rating: *** 1/2
Where: 1500 S. Hanover St., South Baltimore
Contact: 410-244-1501, bluegrasstavern.com
Open: Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Thursday through Sunday for lunch/brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $8 -$14 ; entrees, $16-$28
Food: French country-style versions of Southern-accented American food.
Service: Informed and attentive but relaxed.
Best dishes: Root-vegetable gnocchi with wine-braised lamb ragu, baked oysters, roasted baby pumpkin
Children: No printed children's menu, but the kitchen has limited options ready.
Parking: Close to impossible. Bluegrass provides $5 valet service.
Noise level: Comfortable even when dining rooms are full.
Outdoor seating: Patio seating in nice weather.
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]