It might be useful to think of Woodberry Kitchen not as a restaurant but as a theatrical production, and a long-running one at that, still playing to sold-out audiences after six years.
Start with the producers. Spike Gjerde opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007 with his wife, Amy. A third partner, Nelson Carey, is no longer involved with the operation.
For Gjerde, who had shown range and flair with his earlier restaurants, Spike & Charlie's, Atlantic and Joy America Cafe, Woodberry Kitchen was a stellar comeback. The Gjerdes didn't invent the idea of a farm-to-table restaurant, but they took the idea and produced it on a grand, glamorous and intense scale.
Woodberry Kitchen has earned the reputation it enjoys, and Gjerde is a graceful ambassador of the farm-to-table movement. Every day, the sheer act of producing dinner at Woodberry Kitchen is a massive undertaking by a fiercely dedicated staff.
The spectacular element is the setting, a seamless and soaring, glass-walled, amber-lit arena forged out of a 19th-century foundry. It acts, all at once, as factory, dining room, front lobby, amphitheater and living-history museum.
The basic format of Woodberry Kitchen's menu has remained stable over six years. The one-page sheet is divided, not entirely helpfully, into sections of snacks, salads and cold plates, soup and warm plates, Chesapeake Oysters, From the Butcher, Cheese & Crackers and, finally, Supper, which consists of fully plated entrees.
It's not obvious how to proceed, but you do the best you can, gathering up $3 snacks and $8 small plates, knowing that by the time all is said and done, dinner will run about $75 a person, give or take.
You wish there were a tasting menu, or that the menu sections were less arbitrary. Five Seed Farm radishes with basil mayonnaise are served as a snack, but young carrots and tops, served with pecan pesto and a creamy dressing made from rocket, shallot and tarragon, are a salad, while grilled sweet peppers are placed under Soup and Warm Plates. But they all have the same impact and occupy about the same amount of your attention. They're tasty, but they play more as academic exercises than fully realized restaurant dishes.
You find yourself connecting instead with dishes, small and large, in which raw ingredients have undergone a transformation, where natural flavors have been heightened or even obscured. It might be nectarines, grilled and then coated with honey and sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt, that turn out to be ridiculously delicious. Or it might be a salad of raw swordfish chunks, served with both a leek and radish cream and a cilantro, shallot and ground-cherry dressing, which manages to be a simple pleasure.
A summer bean salad, a pretty mix of green beans, fennel, cherry tomatoes, pea shoots and shallots, works so well because of its strong sheep's milk dressing. A plate of well-seasoned beef tartare succeeds because of the shimmering egg yolk and the spiky salad of parsley and rocket dressed with "scaper" mayonnaise that's served with it. For the most part, more is better.
But the oyster course borders on self-parody. Four separate condiments, all made in-house, including a hot sauce, a cocktail sauce and two mignonette sauces, are brought to the table. It's show-offy. This kind of intensity works better at the bar, where a collaborative exercise in research and training produces potent and delicious cocktails.
Like the appetizers, the entrees you remember are more than the sum of their well-tended parts. The Viking Village scallops, served with creamed corn and green beans, heirloom tomatoes and a slab of Pullman bread and fish-pepper butter, is the closest Woodberry Kitchen gets to bistro fare, the kind of fully imagined entree that you'd welcome to your table anywhere. And we loved it.
By comparison, the tavern steak and the barbecue chicken entrees, because they're more straightforward, ask that you appreciate them for their intrinsic value and for all of the resources and energy that went into bringing them to the plate. And, basking in Woodberry's rustic charm, you want to.
The problem is, there's no room for error with food like this. So on one night when the slices of steak were unevenly cooked — some appeared rare, others medium — it's not a good thing. And on two occasions when the chicken was dry, it's worse.
Dessert is an ideal mix of homespun thing like figs with homemade ricotta, butterscotch pudding, fresh fruit pie and extravaganzas like the CMP, a jar filled with fresh cream ice cream, chocolate sauce, marshmallow "fluff" and wet peanuts.
The waiters and waitresses, well informed as they are, can appear detached and even a bit cultish. And there are times, fleeting moments, when the diner gets the feeling that the Woodberry show — all of the sustaining, gathering, butchering, canning, aging, rendering and handcrafting — would go on even if no one ever showed up.
On a great night at Woodberry Kitchen, the diners are more than just observers. They become part of the production, or even leading players. I've been there when it happens, and it's dazzling.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 2010 Clipper Park Road, Woodberry
Contact: 410-464-8000, woodberrykitchen.com
Open: Dinner daily and brunch on weekends.
Prices: Appetizers $8-$28; entrees $17-$31
Food: Chesapeake cuisine, seafood and steaks
Service: Highly informed and somewhat detached.
Best dishes: Raw swordfish salad, grilled bok choy, grilled nectarines, Viking Village scallops
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking
Outdoor: Patio seating, adjacent to a fire pit.
Children: There is a children's menu.
Noise level/televisions: The main dining room can be clattery; the smaller room is quieter. The music is thoughtfully chosen, and there are no televisions.
Special diets: Woodberry offers a gluten-free menu upon request.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]