"I don't like sweet popcorn," said a friend who was dining with me.
Neither do I, to be honest, but I got caught up in the warm buzz at Pen & Quill (1701 N. Charles St., (410) 601-3588, penandquill.net) and ordered the candied pop corn (two words, as the menu puts it, $4) on impulse, my eyes locking in on "bacon salt" in the description and completely missing the "candied" part. Oh. Well.
Yet despite the mild protest from that diner, the popcorn, like most things about our evening at Pen & Quill, surprised and delighted.
"It's actually not very sweet," the popcorn skeptic ventured as she cooed over the smoky, nearly caramelized bacon chips (meant to suggest Cracker Jack peanuts, one wonders?) strewn among the popped kernels. Several bites later she pronounced the dish "weirdly addictive." And when the bowl was empty, she ran her fingers lightly around its inner surface before popping them into her mouth, a convert.
Pen & Quill is the latest endeavor by the Karzai family, proprietors of the venerable Helmand, the lovely b bistro, and the ever-expanding Tapas Teatro right next door, and it is a fine addition to the portfolio. Like its most recent predecessor in this space, the underwhelming Chesapeake, Pen & Quill's menu occasionally references regional specialties and ingredients seen more often on menus from years-ago Baltimore. Black walnuts crop up in a whimsical dessert called Grapes Three Ways ($10); the cheesecake offering is smearcase cake, albeit made with goat cheese; chicken is fried and served a la Maryland in a traditional dish that also includes bananas (once a major import to the Port of Baltimore). I last remember seeing this dish at the now-closed Chameleon Café, so it's not much of a surprise to learn that chef Bella Kline is an alumna of chef/owner Jeff Smith's kitchen where they annually turned out a Maryland-themed menu.
Make no mistake, however: Pen & Quill is far from being old-fashioned or traditional. Global influences abound all over this clever menu comprised of snacks, small plates, and entrees. Take the lamb crepinette ($18), with its heady aromatics and chickpea tagine, which nods to the Middle East. It is a fabulous small dish (which I would easily welcome as an entree), the lamb roasted, shredded, and re-formed into a small cake and pan-fried (according to the server), rich and almost melting. It's accompanied by perfect green heirloom tomatoes and a heady mint pesto; you don't have to love lamb to love this.
South American influences show in the halibut crudo ($15), another small plate, where the dressed halibut could pass visually for parsleyed potato salad if not for the individual sections of grapefruit and the frill of fried enoki mushrooms. Asia gets a nod with beef tongue steam buns. Truffle orecchiette and porchetta represent for Italy.
If the lamb was our table's hands-down favorite dish of the evening, the porchetta ($29) was a very close second. A thick spiral of rich pork, kept moist by basted fat, it is lush, silky, and almost too much. Kimchi and a neat fan of Asian pear slices keep it balanced. The knobs of blood sausage add more pork but not necessarily more flavor.
Less successful was the octopus entree ($25), which was brought down neither by the octopus itself (which was tender and nicely cooked) nor the portion of fresh artichoke that accompanied it, but by the mostly tasteless barigoule sauce that bound the dish together.
One diner also complained that the cornbread served with the chicken Maryland ($26) was too sweet, but this is a matter of taste and a small quibble on an inventive take on an old classic. According to the server (who was very happy to discuss the menu), Kline wraps boned thigh and leg pieces around forcemeat before breading and frying. The result is a crispy outer layer around a very moist, flavorful middle. This dish, too, is accompanied by lardons and a well-constructed pan gravy.
There is a lot to take in at Pen & Quill, from the cozy lounge area with upholstered couches and ottomans to the crescent-shaped banquettes in the dining room; the long bar with its chalkboard offering of oysters and the second dining room decked out in warm teals and reds and kilim rugs; the diverse crowd of diners in gray hair or dark beards, Under Armour casual or floral dresses with bare legs and cowboy boots. There are clever desserts such as dark and milk chocolate cremosa ($11), two perfect squares of creamy dark and milk chocolate served with toasted marshmallows and a wicked nut brittle, and a sly take on a ginger and bourbon highball made with ginger beer and bourbon ice cream ($9). And don't overlook Pen & Quill's smart and affordable wine list. Mostly Old World choices, more than half the bottles are less than $50, including some interesting varietals such as Schiava, Blaufränkisch, and a dry sparkling Lambrusco (there are also familiar comforts like chardonnay and pinot noir). Beer selections are similarly satisfying, with the majority of drafts hailing from Maryland and Washington, D.C.
With roughly two months under its belt, Pen & Quill is proving itself a worthy contender to be the hip, new, go-to space of the moment (and a natural choice for a drink and a bite post-Charles Theatre, certainly). There were a few small bumps in service: a beer ordered and forgotten, a minor miscommunication regarding oysters. But those were handled graciously. And there were many things I wish I had tried but didn’t: market lima-bean soup, steak frites with béarnaise sauce, roasted mushrooms, the pan-seared tuna small plate, the orecchiette. Time to return for more. ν
Pen & Quill is open Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.