Pen & Quill, the newest eatery in the old Chesapeake Restaurant building just north of Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, feels like exactly the right restaurant, in the right place, at the right time. It’s sophisticated but casual, modern but rooted in history — all at once.
Pen & Quill’s Charles Street space was empty for years after Chesapeake Restaurant closed; a 2013 incarnation, The Chesapeake, fizzled out after less than a year in business. Then last summer, the Karzais — the family behind several local powerhouse restaurants, including neighbor Tapas Teatro — opened Pen & Quill.
The space is inviting and cool, with a mix of booths and tables anchored by a long bar. The service is well informed, if a little too chatty at times, and the kitchen boasts both technical chops and a creative approach to food.
After a round of well-balanced cocktails, including the Oaxacan Girlfriend, a spicy and smoky mezcal drink, and the Caledonia, a well-balanced concoction of grapefruit, honey syrup and Pikesville Rye, we dug into a few small plates.
The beef tongue steam bun seems to be one of this season’s “it” foods in Baltimore. The springy bun, filled with thinly shaved beef tongue and topped with cool, tangy tzatziki and a scatter of pickled peppers, was an exciting combination of flavors and textures. The steam bun deserves every bit of its newfound popularity.
A plate of scallops, served with small slivers of foie gras over creamed corn and fresh lima beans, was delicate and lovely, though not quite as exciting as the steam bun.
Pen & Quill takes its name from the name of the bar at Chesapeake Restaurant. But that’s not its only nod to history.
As our waiter walked us through the menu, making recommendations and answering questions, he paused when he mentioned the chicken Maryland. “It was created in the school of Escoffier,” he said, referring to the legendary French chef who modernized French cuisine at the turn of the 20th century.
The dish, which involves chicken that has been deboned, reformed and fried, served with lardon-studded gravy, super-moist cornbread and fried banana, was a study in French-inspired technique and old-fashioned Maryland flavors. That fact that both the kitchen and our waiter were well-versed in culinary history was impressive. Even more importantly, though, the chicken and its accoutrements tasted great.
A pulled-pork-cheek sandwich, one of the menu’s more casual options, was less technical but also quite tasty. Tossed in a sweet, Memphis-style barbecue sauce and garnished with pickled watermelon rind and an egg, the sandwich was hearty and fun.
For dessert, adorable cubes of mild, airy chévre were accessorized with dollops of blueberry, raspberry and peach jam as well as several apostrophe-shaped churros dusted in cinnamon sugar. The combination of crunch, sweetness and tang was exactly what we wanted at the end of the meal.
Even when done well, dessert cheeses, pulled pork, and dishes inspired by the famous French chefs of yesteryear are nothing new. But on a menu next to creative cocktails and inspired treats like the beef tongue steam buns, they feel fresh and modern.
Pen & Quill is located in Station North, a vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhood with an arts district designation and a plethora of restaurants and theaters that draw people from all over the region. It’s a spot that already felt exciting, and with the addition of Pen & Quill, Station North’s restaurant scene has been kicked up a notch.