Waterfront Kitchen's new chef brings food to life

For The Baltimore Sun
This Baltimore restaurant has had a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but its newest chef really shines.

Waterfront Kitchen seems to change chefs as frequently as the items on its New American seasonal menu. Chris Amendola, formerly of Bookmaker's Cocktail Club and Fleet Street Kitchen, is now taking his turn at the Fells Point restaurant, which can rightfully claim one of the best harbor views in Baltimore.

This diner hopes that the executive chef, who also spent time at the prestigious Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York's Hudson Valley, will stick around for a while — a long while. His food captures the true spirit of Waterfront's "seed to plate" ethos.

Local farms are noted on the menu like prized footnotes and are culled for their freshest goods. The restaurant also partners with a program that teaches gardening to inner-city students, using the seasonal produce they grow.

But this isn't a homespun mom-and-pop venture. The dining room, designed by Patrick Sutton when it opened in 2011, is gorgeous with fabric-covered walls, honey-colored panels, a beamed ceiling and roped globe lighting. A modernistic piece of swirly art stands out prominently behind the bar. And the outdoor deck and promenade provide a panoramic expanse of water, boats and city landmarks.

What better place to enjoy a seasonal cocktail like a fizzy cranberry orange sparkler or a craft beer like Brewer's Art Birdhouse Pale Ale? There are assorted wines, including a selection of Axios vintages from Maryland native Guy Axios. There's also a $600 Amarone in the wine cooler if that's in your price range.

Under Amendola's guidance, the restaurant's dishes are more sophisticated than I remember from my last visit. Snacks like ricotta toast are deconstructed on a wood board to be reassembled for a complete picture. A dab of creamy ricotta, a smear of pureed butternut squash and a sticky candied walnut on a toasted baguette slice create a whole. The baked Sapidus Farms oysters from a "boutique oyster farm" on the Wicomico River are already assembled with a blanket of marvelous spinach marmalade and a smooth hollandaise sauce.

Appetizers are also placed under the categories of vegetables, seafood and meats, and anything under $17 qualifies, a server said. The fall harvest salad was a delicate fluff of leaf lettuces with thinly sliced radishes, fennel, hazelnuts and a surprise bundle of herb goat cheese tucked like a Christmas gift under the greens. The wild mushroom stew was a magical mix of meaty fungi, pine nuts, a fun poached egg and ricotta gnudi (cheese dumplings).

The wait staff, dressed in jeans and blue shirts, is in balletic sync with each other, gracefully pirouetting in to fill water glasses, remove dishes and set down courses at the same time. Our good-natured waiter, Howard, gave us the provenance of each dish when necessary and checked in on us at appropriate intervals.

Our entrees were beautifully plated with swirls of sauces, a purposeful placement of ingredients and showers of micro greens and fresh herbs. A pan-roasted rockfish, caught locally and delivered to the kitchen that day, Howard said, gleamed amid a confit of orange heirloom carrots, carrot ginger puree and a smattering of hazelnuts. The roasted, pale pink salmon was juxtaposed against a strikingly green broccoli puree, charred broccoli and glazed white turnips.

Our pan-roasted New York strip — the beef mined from Roseda Farm in Monkton — was sliced and splayed rosily beneath plump, charred green onions languishing seductively over the meat. The fork-tender steak was accompanied by heirloom potatoes and tiny pillows of leek "cream."

Our waiter paused when I ordered the pan-seared chicken, then assured me that chicken was a good test of any kitchen. What might seem like plebeian poultry is really a treat in restaurants these days. Happy, farm-raised birds deliver juicy, flavorful meat, and this boneless breast with tiny drumette with crispy skin was no exception. The bronze beauty rested on a flavorful combo of heirloom grains, roasted mushrooms, sauteed kale and chicken jus.

We kept asking each other, "What is your favorite dessert?" We couldn't decide. The apple crumb cobbler was a delight with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream drizzled with caramel. The chocolate mousse cake reveled in its chocolateness — chocolate cake, chocolate sauce, chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream. If this is death by chocolate, I'm in. The pear cheesecake is not a typical diner wedge. This creation was served in a bowl, another blend of parts, with the cheesy filling resonating with fresh pear chunks and graham cracker crumbs. The ice cream sandwich was playful with vanilla ice cream stuffed between two sturdy chocolate-chip cookies. The hands-on sweet was messy but good.

Chef Amendola has put some needed oomph into the pretty face on Thames Street. Waterfront Kitchen has been waiting for this food breakthrough.

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Waterfront Kitchen

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 1417 Thames St., Baltimore

Contact: 443-681-5310; http://waterfrontkitchen.com

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (brunch) and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (brunch) and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $17; entrees, $19 to $33; desserts, $9 to $10.

Food: New American "seed-to-plate" cuisine

Noise/TVs: Conversational with alternative rock playing quietly in the background; no TVs.

Service: A professional staff that is in sync with each other, from the busboys to the servers.

Parking: Valet, paid parking lot, street

Special diets: The kitchen is willing to accommodate vegans, vegetarians and those with allergies or gluten intolerance.

Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]