Bluegrass is off to a great start.
I liked this place on first, and second, sight. This is the high-expectations South Baltimore restaurant that reunites general manager Jorbie Clark and chef Patrick Morrow, who worked together at Ryleigh's Oyster by Cross Street Market. What struck me most on two visits to Bluegrass was how in sync the front of the house was with the kitchen and how much everyone is on mission. It's clear that the wait staff is excited by the menu and proud of how well the kitchen is executing it. It's also apparent that Morrow's kitchen, for now at least, has been given room to create, explore, and to play.
I don't know how word spreads in the hospitality business about who's decent and who's not, but Bluegrass has attracted an all-star team. Fans of the Wine Market will recognize Kelli Hopkins behind the bar, and admirers of Christopher Coker's wine talents at Corks will note his contributions here. There are other familiar faces among the staff.
In less than two months, Bluegrass has taken on a clear identity. I got it immediately, and much of my enthusiasm for it is because it's playing my song. With no dissonance, Bluegrass works equally well as a baseball-cap-and-shorts neighborhood hangout and a dress-up-for destination. This is borne out in the attractive physical spaces, inside and out, upstairs and down, which have been smartly restored with great attention to customer comfort.
I like that there's an upstairs bar, which clears up space downstairs. I like, too, that the bars are equipped on the customer side with hooks and footrests. Sometimes luck follows talent — the outdoor seating benefits from a rare-for-Baltimore northern exposure, so al fresco diners don't broil. While Morrow's menu, with its bison, antelope, quail and rabbit, is clearly calibrated toward unhesitating diners, there are enough accessible choices to comfort the meat-and-potatoes crowd.
The senses and sensibilties of Morrow, a Texas native, are apparent on his all-American menu — practically a heritage menu, which has a detectable Southern accent but ends up roving wherever good food is found. Morrow belongs on the growing list of Baltimore chefs who care about where the food they serve comes from and know what do with it once they have it. I'd put him near the top.
If the menu's basic layout recalls that of Woodberry Kitchen, that's not a bad inspiration. It begins with a handful of small bites, savory things like Grand Marnier-marinated olives, crostini covered with bacon jam or expertly breaded crawfish hush puppies, that will sustain a table while diners explore the evening's options. Before even reading about the food, there's a lot of information to absorb, including a smart cocktail menu, an extensive selections of bourbons and Coker's intriguing wine list, which gives equal attention to both ends of the imported and domestic selections.
The balance of the menu is divided up, more sensibly than it sounds, into medium, large, extra large, and lighter bites. Essentially, these are appetizers, entrees, big steaks and light fare. And there's a separate, and essential, listing of cheese selections and house-cured charcuterie.
The handsomely presented Grand Southern sampler adds pickled okra and heavenly deviled eggs to gorgeous cuts of speck and Benton's Smoky Mountain country ham and a nutty and sweet rabbit pate. A recent charcuterie platter featured duck rilletes, pheasant ballontine, and chicken liver mousse. The changing cheese selection features American all-stars and up-and-comers.
An appetizer course showed us the kitchen's range and imagination. Veal sweetbread and sweet potatoes are served as tots with a truffle remoulade; ricotta dumplings with roasted beech mushrooms are an exemplary vegetarian starter; and an open-face taco trio features braised oxtails, antelope chorizo and, best of the three, wild boar served al pastor, marinated with cilantro, onion and pineapple.
By now, we were nearly full, and we hadn't come within thinking distance of entrees. For their sake, I'd have done without the complimentary cornbread. Although it makes a great visual impression — its arrival in a warm cast-iron skillet is meant to be a signature moment — it tastes too much like health-store cornbread. It's the only thing none of use liked and the only time it felt as if Bluegrass was caring too much about pleasing everybody. Give it some bacon grease, maybe, or some jalapenos.
But we did manage after all to order and enjoy the sensational antelope loin, which gets the evening's best side dish, a luxurious Vidalia onion tart, and an impressive fried-chicken entrée, one of the evening's specials. The menu changes fast at Bluegrass, and the duck breast preparation I had might be gone by now. I enjoyed it very much. And the vegetarian entrée, which was pappardelle noodles with protein-rich green peas, almost certainly has.
The dessert list is compact and appealing. Homemade ice cream is a mainstay. Other things change. Hope for the luscious banana cream pie, which feels like a reinvention.
Bluegrass seems in good hands, but if word starts to spread, it will still need time to make the occasional mistake. Though, apart from a badly maintained and unhelpful website (a pet peeve of mine), there's not much these pros haven't thought of at this good, good place.
Where: 1500 S. Hanover St.
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Thursday and Friday and brunch Saturday and Sunday
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]