A lot can happen in the first three years of a restaurant's life. Things can go haywire. Investors panic, managers quit and staff moves on.
But sometimes, not often enough, wisdom prevails. The restaurant considers what works, what doesn't. It reacts, but doesn't overreact, to diners' responses, and it changes things, thoughtfully, gradually, confidently.
If you believe in the capacity for change, head down to Wit & Wisdom, the principal restaurant at the Four Seasons Baltimore Hotel. The restaurant — its formal name is Wit & Wisdom, a Modern American Tavern by Michael Mina — has settled into an impressive groove, and the kitchen is flourishing. In July, Zack Mills completed his first year as the restaurant's executive chef. He's cooking up a storm, while a new pastry chef, Dyan Ng, is turning out some mind-boggling, delightful desserts.
Wit & Wisdom opened in November 2011 on a tide of publicity, much of it about the acclaimed San Francisco-based chef Michael Mina, whose Mina Group had developed high-profile restaurants in competitive locales such as Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Miami.
Wit & Wisdom was the Mina Group's first stab at a tavern concept, and it showed. The restaurant felt contrived, and there was a disconnect between the casual atmosphere and the fine-dining prices. If you don't feel that disconnect anymore, it's not because the atmosphere has changed but because the quality of the food and service has made it a nonissue.
Besides the new personnel, there have been other changes. The restaurant's splendid waterside patio was not ready when Wit & Wisdom opened, and the views from the dining room were marred by ongoing construction.
The massive rotisserie, which occupied a place of prominence in the restaurant's open kitchen, has been removed. Not that it didn't produce lovely food, but it felt aggressive, demanding to be noticed and admired. I don't miss it.
Fundamentally, the menu remains what it was when Wit & Wisdom opened. There are opening sections of seasonal shellfish, appetizers and salads, and main sections devoted to wood-grilled meats and wood-fired seafood. The menu's centerpiece is a selection of what Wit & Wisdom calls "regional tavern classics," and it's here that you'll find Mills' tour de force, the Maryland Blue Crab Tasting.
This $45 extravaganza presents a minimally seasoned crab cake made with pretty lump and sweet claw meat on a bed of succotash and corn pudding; a crispy deep-fried soft-shell crab with avocado puree and marinated cherry tomatoes; and, the unexpected highlight, a spicy tomato crab stew that Mills adapted from his mother's recipe. Zesty and rich, balanced beautifully, with sweet crab notes and smoky tomato ones, this is the best crab soup in Baltimore right now
For sheer drama, there's the Hudson Valley foie gras torchon, a sculptural composition incorporating a perfectly formed disc of super-rich foie gras, intensely flavored vacuum-compressed strawberries, a pretty creme de cassis gelee and translucent shards of peanut butter crisp. There's a lot going on here — crispy textures and gelatinous ones; salty flavors and rich, fruity flavors — and the sum of these parts is pure pleasure.
Simple things are wonderful, too. From the wood-fired grill comes a meltingly tender and natural tasting Gunpowder bison fillet. From the garde manger, there's a gorgeous salad composed of Hummingbird Farms tomatoes with bone-white burrata, basil puree and a black garlic vinaigrette.
Ng's dessert course offers indulgences such as Nutella-filled beignets, original creations like jasmine-scented panna cotta with salted caramel, red currants and marcona almonds. And then there are statement-making desserts like those listed on the menu, simply, as "Lemon," "Corn' and "Olive."
A free-form circle of luscious brown-buttered corn, flecked with bits of pork crackling and mild chili peppers, "Corn" shows off Ng's talent for gently introducing savory moments to a dessert creation, right up to the point where you're not even sure what you're eating is dessert anymore. It's a risky move that pays off.
This is very good food, and it's supported by a well-trained wait staff, who are eager to help diners arrange a well-paced meal. Exceptional support comes from Julie Dalton, the restaurant's longtime sommelier, whose pairing suggestions, from start to finish, are uncanny. I encourage you to ask for advice, and take it. If you go it alone, though, you'll have an engaging, simply arranged wine list to work with.
Two other restaurants that the Mina Group developed for the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore — Pabu and Lamill — closed earlier this year. Be glad that Wit & Wisdom has stayed.
Wit & Wisdom
Rating: 4 1/2 stars
Where: 200 International Drive,
Contact: 410-576-5800, witandwisdombaltimore.com
Open: 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays; 7 a.m to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $11-$19; entrees: $26-$48
Food: Contemporary American food with a focus on Chesapeake regional cuisine
Service: Focused, informed and thoughtful
Parking: The restaurant offers its guests a discounted rate ($8) for valet service.
Children: A children's menu includes favorites such as cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese.
Special diets: The staff is prepared to make suggestions, and the kitchen will modify menu items at diners' request. Guests with concerns about gluten can request a special menu that shows menu items already modified.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas. There are four TVs in the bar with their volume always turned off.
Outdoor dining: The full menu is available on the 48-seat harbor-side patio and at the 15-seat outside bar.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun