Canton Crossing — the 326,000-square-foot, 12-month-old shopping center in Southeast Baltimore — is convenient but not exactly exciting.
As a resident living less than a mile away, I find myself there frequently, but almost always with practical intentions. Trash bags? Target. Above-average fast-food chicken? Find me in the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, except on Sundays. I can already see a last-minute trip to Michaels for a makeshift Halloween costume.
But from my vantage point, Farmstead Grill — the retail center's huge centerpiece restaurant that opened in June — blended into the background, despite its size and prominent placement. Canton Crossing, in my mind, was a place for errand-running, not leisurely dining or social drinking.
That association changed quickly on a recent Friday evening visit to the restaurant's bar.
From afar, Farmstead Grill looks like an oversized barn, but one step inside reveals a beautiful setting with a ceiling that never seems to end. Accents of wood keep it from feeling fancy, while attractively dim lighting promotes intimacy. It's a versatile space that should feel comfortable regardless of the occasion. The 25 people inside — families, dates and friends of different ages and backgrounds — seemingly agreed.
At the relatively modest bar, which had a dozen seats or so, a couple of bartenders warmly greeted us with a couple of menus. On this visit, Farmstead Grill had reliable beer standards (Heavy Seas' Loose Cannon, The Brewer's Art's Beazly — which still had its old name, Ozzy) and harder-to-find crafts with specialty flavors (Boulevard's Ginger-Lemon Radler, Jailbreak's Carrot Cake Conspiracy) on six draft lines for $6 per pint. We were there, however, for the recently debuted fall cocktail menu.
Of the eight drinks offered, the bartender first recommended the P.I.C. (short for “Partners in Crime,” $12), a combination of two cocktails known as His and Hers. The His ($11) mixes Bulleit rye whiskey, vermouth, McCutcheon's apple cider from Frederick, grenadine and a dash of Peychaud’s bitters, while the more streamlined Hers ($10) uses Green Hat gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and orange bitters. The P.I.C. combines both cocktails in a single drink for surprisingly clean and crisp results, despite the inherent risk of blunting flavors with that many ingredients. The top-shelf spirits interact well together, especially with the addition of the light elderflower flavor. The apple cider gave it an earthy finish.
More addictive was the Autumn Crush ($10), which a bartender later called the most popular cocktail on the menu. The Crush quelled my initial concerns that it would be too cloying to enjoy. In fact, it was hard to put down, thanks to a smooth, winning combination of AppleJack apple brandy, pinot noir, apple and lemon juices, creme de cassis and a shot of the house's autumn spice blend. It was another cocktail I expected to assault the tastebuds, but the tartness of the brandy and the sweet liqueur found harmony. Both cocktails were pleasantly anchored by fall flavors without tasting like headache-inducing candles.
My concerns over sweetness were unfounded, but I did not leave the bar unscathed. True heat-seekers — and I do not mean the type of person choosing medium salsa over mild — will be tempted, as I was, by the Mark Adams ($10), a cocktail advertised as a “very dry and very hot dirty martini.” Vodka martinis typically use vermouth, but this was simply Tito's vodka infused with serrano and habanero chili peppers. The bartender double-checked that I enjoyed spice while admitting she could not drink it. The first sip left my skull hot. After another sip, beads of sweat formed as I literally lost my train of thought mid-conversation. After my friend put it to her lips, her eyes widened. “Are you serious?” she asked between gulps of water. I walked away after finishing three-quarters of the Mark Adams, without regret but without a desire to ever drink it again.
Throughout the visit, service was stellar. We overheard a bartender tell a customer she was in training, but could not tell from her performance, as little details were not ignored. Both bartenders properly tasted cocktails with straws before serving, and my martini glass was chilled, futilely, with ice water first — even if a glacier could not have cooled it down. At one point, a barkeep noticed something floating in my water before I did. Service was not uniformly perfect (she forgot to replace the water but apologized after I asked for a refill), but the well-placed intentions and best practices made it easy to overlook comparatively minor missteps.
As we closed the check and I finally regained cognizance from the Mark Adams, it became clear the crowd had ballooned to a nearly full dining room. Farmstead Grill seemed settled in not only for a solid Friday night, but as a viable option for unwinding over drinks and food in Canton. Farmstead Grill won't upend Canton Crossing's reputation as a suburban-like shopping center, but its seasonal bar selections and comfortable atmosphere offer reasons to visit even when you leave the shopping list at home.