TV celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant portfolio has crept out across the Mid-Atlantic from his home base in Frederick, Maryland, and he’s now set down roots in Baltimore’s busiest tourist district. His swanky Italian-inspired eatery, Aggio, opened last June in the garish Power Plant Live, while his second Family Meal location (621 E. Pratt St., 601-3242, voltfamilymeal.com), which serves what it calls “re-invented classic American diner fare,” hovers above the water on Pier 4.
With high ceilings, slick white and gray hues, and warm wood accents, the dining room at Family Meal feels notably less touristy than its neighbors, and more grown-up than the original location in the car dealership-cum-restaurant out in Frederick. The expansive dining room, broken up into intimate spaces, creates a relaxing and welcoming space.
The cocktail menu (most are $12) is ambitious and playful, but not all offerings were created equal. The #8, aka Hometown Hero, assembled intrepid ingredients like avocado infused mezcal, cinnamon, grapefruit soda, and Cocchi Americano. While the Hero delivered on smoky and citrus notes, the other flavors never made it to the surface. The Le Jardinier, fueled by carrot-infused gin, basil-infused almond oil, ginger, and lemon, reads like something you'd begrudgingly drink during a cleanse; instead it's an earthy treat, with emerald puddles of the basil-almond oil floating on top. Bonus: It smells like weed.
The Family Meal Sous Vide Sazerac combines rye whiskey, fennel, Peychaud's bitters, and lemon in sous vide and we rooted for it to explode with citrus and anise; instead it was a good Sazerac, but for what it offers you might as well order a regular one. On the flip side, the Grey Ghost, loaded with Irish whiskey, baked apple syrup, lemon, bitters, and dusted with pink peppercorn, was a complex composition of caramel, spicy, and sour citrus flavors and paired impeccably with the apple cake (more on that later). Family Meal beats other cocktail offerings in the Inner Harbor, but to shine in a city with a rapidly growing cocktail scene it'll need to step up its game.
Its crowd-pleasing menu of American diner food delivered appetizers and sharables that shone as bright spots in our visits. The Brussels sprouts ($3.99) and pimento macaroni and cheese ($4.99) deliver spot-on contrasts in flavors and textures. The sprouts come charred and mildly spicy with golden raisins and sunflower seeds, while the macaroni oozes velvety cheese spiked with pimentos and capped with crispy breadcrumbs. If it were larger, the mac and cheese could anchor the entree section.
We delighted in plucking Chicken Potpie Fritters ($5.99) from the bowl and cracking open golden marbles revealing chicken and gravy. It was as fun to break these suckers open as it was to savor their crispy crust, runny gravy , and chunks of carrot and shredded chicken. The deviled eggs ($4.99), on the other hand, lacked flavor and were unremarkable.
Mindful to work roughage into our menu choices, we sampled the wedge and frisee salads (both $8.99). The wedge came as a disk with geometric piles of bacon jam, onion, blue cheese, and tomato vinaigrette. Overall, the wedge was pretty ordinary outside of the vinaigrette with its creamy texture and tangy bite. Shimmering with sherry-bacon vinaigrette, the frisee came blanketed in paper-thin fried shallots, with a poached egg nestled inside. This bowl of decadent flavors didn't do us much good on the vegetable front, but the sharp and luxurious salad was gratifying and bold.
No strangers to the chicken box, we decided to see what table service buys you in these parts and ordered the three-piece fried chicken ($11.99) off the supper menu. The skin crackled as we bit down and the white meat was just as tender as the dark. If anything it was underseasoned, but chef was one step ahead with a cup of bright vinegar hot sauce. In a city that loves its chicken, this may be some of most succulent boxless fried chicken we've found.
Shrimp and grits ($19.99) may not be quite as popular as fried chicken, but we were hoping for another home run. We initially raised an eyebrow at he unconventional buckwheat cheddar grits, but we were happily surprised by the creaminess even if the rest of the dish proved bland.
We were told the pepperoni cheeseburger ($13.99) is ground in house with beef and pepperoni and comes loaded with avocado, pepper jack, and a fried egg. As we chomped into the beastly, yolk-covered patty, the pepperoni was an afterthought among the other toppings; but as a regular burger, we'd order it again. The sandwiches don't come with sides, so we paired the burger with cornflake-crusted onion rings ($5.99). These onion rings should mentor other onion rings: the onion encapsulated in a super crunchy, lightly sweet-and-salty batter and assembled so the onions don't slide out of the tubes of breading.
Like much of the meal, the desserts delivered highs and lows. The Smith Island Cake ($7.99) sadly disappointed. The cake was fluffy but lacked flavor and the icing was granular. The caramel apple cake ($6.99), on the other hand, was brilliant. The deeply flavored sticky sauce gave dimension to the cake, while the apple cider sorbet brightened an otherwise heavily sweet dish.
The absolute winner for our visits was the banana scotch pudding ($6.99), dazzling with layers of whipped cream, butterscotch pudding, shortbread, and bruleed banana. The artfully displayed strata had a delectable mix of textures and flavors; the parfait was neither too sweet nor heavy as it elevated the natural sweetness of the banana.
While we felt welcomed and comfortable in Voltaggio's refuge from the national chains of the Inner Harbor, the almost-there cocktail execution was telling for the rest of the menu: Some dishes ring with home-cooked delight, while others are good enough to finish but are nothing we'd write home about.