I hadn’t planned it this way, but I recently found myself perched in the exact same spot at Woodberry Kitchen where I sat when it opened 10 years ago.
And just like that day, ensconced in the upper balcony, I had a fantastic meal. In 2007, chef-owner Spike Gjerde was just beginning his mission to serve local, seasonal products, going on to win a James Beard Award for his efforts in 2015.
In many ways, he’s put Baltimore on the national restaurant map. But over the years, the stunning, refurbished foundry in the Woodberry neighborhood hasn’t always been consistent. I’ve had ups and downs with the food and service, feeling at times like I’d been betrayed by a once-promising suitor.
But this visit was near perfect. The dishes couldn’t have been better prepared, and the plaid-wearing, hipster wait staff was sincere and superb.
Maybe it’s because chef de cuisine Lou Sumpter is bringing new energy to the kitchen. The six-year employee started out as a stage, or intern, before working his way up to Woodberry Kitchen’s top kitchen position.
This year, the Ellicott City native also received big-time attention. He was named one of eater.com’s “Young Guns” for 2017, a designation given to industry up-and-comers who are 30 and younger.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Sumpter, 28, who was honored at a New York ceremony. “I didn’t expect it, but national press for Baltimore is a good thing.”
And kudos to Sumpter. But, from what I could tell, the real reason Woodberry Kitchen is hitting all the right notes lately is due to a dynamic team effort.
My dinner guests, who had never been to Woodberry, agreed. Without previous experiences at the restaurant, they came to the dinner with fresh eyes and palates.
The list of craft cocktails is impressive — and pricey. Our waiter explained that they were listed in order of alcoholic intensity.
We sipped on an “apiary,” a lovely, though petite, drink in a coupe glass, featuring Vermont gin, Washington white vermouth and a New York plum liqueur. It was a pleasantly gentle libation.
The “pre-Prohibition old fashioned” isn’t for sissies. It packed a punch with a potent West Virginia whiskey and a cherry cordial.
Nondrinkers are treated thoughtfully at Woodberry with several mocktails. “An American in Paris” was refreshing with verjus, lavender and a hint of maple in a tall glass.
The supper menu can seem a little precious with its ingredient descriptions (“adorable bread,” “heritage butter” and “put-up tomato”) and with a printed nod to the many growers whose products are used by the kitchen. But our engaging waiter was able to answer our questions about the food.
We started off with a couple of snacks to take the edge off our hunger. The four deviled-egg halves were delicious orbs with chipped ham and fish peppers.
You’ll see fish peppers used in other dishes on the menu. When I later asked Sumpter about them, he told me that the pepper’s seeds had been saved from extinction by a Pennsylvania farmer, and Woodberry embraced the peppers for their flavor.
“They have a nice fruity quality,” Sumpter said. “They’re not hot like habaneros. They’re more like a tabasco [pepper].”
We also nibbled on the “kitchen pickles.” The briny fruits and vegetables — including peaches, sweet peppers, celery and cucumbers — were piquant and addictive.
Before we got to our main courses, we shared a summer vegetable flatbread that wowed us. The crisp crust, smeared with basil pesto, was laden with cherry tomatoes, squash, scallions, sweet peppers and cheddar cheese. It was a masterful pie.
We dug into a warm Tilghman Island crab pot with spelt crackers and thin, crispy toasts. The wonderful dip, creamy with a dairy product called quark, was packed with lump crab and more of those mild fish peppers.
We each thought we ordered the best entree, which says a lot about their caliber. The seared cast-iron chicken was one of the most succulent pieces of poultry I’ve eaten in a long time. Its moist goodness was accompanied by braised greens, sweet peppers and a great biscuit with honey butter.
The Pennsylvania farmed trout was a whopper. Two sweet fillets were embellished with roasted La Ratte potatoes (considered the Cadillac of fingerling potatoes), leeks, cherry tomatoes and a subtle mustard dressing.
The rabbit legs were an inspired country dish. The mild-mannered, plump meat blended well with stewed eggplant, wood-roasted tomatoes, peppers and fried garlic in a soothing rabbit jus.
After eating crab cakes around town for years, I have strong opinions about where to find the best ones. I am now adding Woodberry’s Tilghman Island crab cake to my favorites list. This gorgeous, golden patty, served in a cast-iron skillet from the oven, doesn’t need the cocktail and tartar sauces served with it. It does benefit from a potato pave (a fancy name for molded scalloped potatoes) and a delicate tomato and herb salad.
Pastry chef Rachel Theisen didn’t let us down for dessert. Her creations have an elegant, rustic quality.
A wedge of irresistible peach crumb pie sat in a circle of honey caramel with fresh cream ice cream, while a plum galette featured an enticing pastry crust housing its namesake fruit and a black-walnut frangipane filling atop custard cream.
But the one you must get is the honey and fig. An ethereal wildflower-honey tart came with glazed figs, rose-petal salt and a small fist of nectarine sorbet.
It was a feel-good night all around. We left Woodberry Kitchen thrilled to have renewed our love affair with this innovative restaurant.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Where: 2010 Clipper Park Road, Suite 126, Woodberry
Contact: 410-464-8000, woodberrykitchen.com
Supper hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Brunch hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Prices: Snacks $2-$7; cold and warm plates $11-$17; flatbreads, $12-$20; entrees $20-$120 (the latter price for a bone-in rib-eye steak with a soft-shell crab).
Food: New American
Noise/TVs: The upper level in the cavernous space is more relaxed than the lower level, which can be loud at peak times; no TVs.
Service: Our server was a knowledgeable and professional guide.
Parking: Complimentary valet parking
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes; there is an entrance ramp in the back of the building.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]