Swanky Wit & Wisdom raises the bar on high-end cocktails

Of the 11 cocktails on the menu at Wit & Wisdom Tavern at the new Four Seasons, several automatically jump out. They carry unexpected ingredients, like Fernet Branca, a herbaceous liqueur, and bitters with a dominant orange flavor.

But before I ordered, I asked my bartender to suggest something. Choosing the Aviation, a gin-based cocktail, she explained every detail about its ingredients. She knew that the Luxardo Maraschino gave it a cherry flavor, and that the creme de violette added a floral element.

Her skillful presentation — which didn't slow down service elsewhere — was one of several ways in which Wit & Wisdom stands out. It has some drawbacks — high prices and limited beer selection, to name two — but more than other new bars in Harbor East and Fells Point, its elegance and leisurely tempo make it a destination for after-work cocktails, a place to conduct business and sometimes, simply to linger.

Before Wednesday night, a friend had half-jokingly said he couldn't come to Wit & Wisdom with me because he was looking schlumpy. The Four Seasons brand inevitably brings that forbidding impression with it. But in my experience, it's a false impression. This is still a bar at a hotel, despite its pedigree.

The people hanging out — and there was a pretty good crowd on a Wednesday night — were still tired travelers relaxing. They ordered Natty Boh on draft and marveled at the immaculate bathrooms. They didn't sit in leather chairs stroking a glass of whiskey. It might become that sort of a place, but for now it's about as exclusive as Bond Street Social in Fells Point.

The layout is smart, with the egg-shaped bar the first thing you see upon entering; the dining side is off to the right. Its look is corporate — vague watercolors, sprawling windows looking out on to the harbor, crimson couches adorned with heart-shaped cushions — neat, yes, but also predictable. "This is what a Four Seasons bar looks like," you want to say. A nice touch: Guests decide when to turn on the fireplaces.

Created by mixologist Adrian Ross-Boon, the cocktails are a highlight. The Company, another gin-based cocktail, risks being too citrusy, but the fresh lemon juice and orange bitters make it pop. That's the sign of a balanced drink. The Sticky Wicket, a take on an Old-Fashioned, is incredibly aromatic. The syrupy and full-bodied Corn Oil No. 2, especially, makes for a great after-dinner cocktail.

Ross-Boon, who was most recently at the Four Seasons in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of a handful of bartenders who have commendably put a premium on what can be called "craft cocktails." Their ingredients are regionally sourced, and their garnishes and syrups prepared in-house. Cocktails here are also surprisingly affordable, given the venue — $10 across the board, comparable to Rye in Fells, and much cheaper than the gimmicky liquid nitrogen cocktails at Bond Street.

A shortened dining menu is also available at the bar. Skip the duck liver mousse ($8) — too vapid; my friend described it as "T.G.I. Friday's idea of duck mousse." Try the indulgent cheddar pimento cheese, served with wheat crackers and shaved bacon $9).

Wit & Wisdom offers a lot of wine options from across the United States, but the prices are out of step with Baltimore. Its 14 Hands Merlot is $9 a glass; you can find a bottle at the Wine Source for $10.99.

Though it's admirably focused on regional brands — Flying Dog, DuClaw, Brewer's Art — the beer list is stingy, with just five drafts, and three by the bottle. They're also the local brands any out-of-towners would go for. Meanwhile, both Rye in Fells and Vino Rosina in Harbor East have all of Wit & Wisdom's selections, plus more options, and impressive ones at that.

Next time I go to Wit & Wisdom, I'd like to be able to order Baltimore's Stillwater Artisanal Ales off the menu, just as I can at these two smaller venues. It would also help if Wit & Wisdom's menu stopped describing National Bohemian as brewed in Baltimore. It makes them come across as out of touch.



Wit & Wisdom

Back story: The $200 million Four Seasons Hotel opened in November. Wit & Wisdom is the work of well-known San Francisco chef Michael Mina, whose Mina Group has restaurants in tourist destinations like Las Vegas and Miami. The head mixologist at the tavern is Adrian Ross-Boon, who was previously at the Four Seasons in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Signature drink: The Corn Oil No. 2, my favorite out of three I tried. $10. There are 11 cocktails in all, not including two virgin cocktails. Beers — three by the bottle (including Yuengling and Natty Boh); five drafts (Brewer's Art Resurrection, DuClaw Venom) — are all under $7. Wines by the glass — nine whites, nine reds, 11 sweets — top out at $19. The bar offers an extensive selection of spirits. Cocktails are $6 and Natty Boh $1.88 during happy hour, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Open: Daily, 11:30 a.m.-midnight

Where: 200 International Drive, Harbor East.

Parking: Valet; on-street ticketed parking available as well

Contact: 410-223-1456; http://www.witandwisdombaltimore.com

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