Dining review

Unexpected excellence at Cask & Grain in Canton

For The Baltimore Sun
While the casual restaurant is stylish, you wouldn't expect food of this caliber at Cask & Grain in Canton.

When the building next door to Canton's Portside Tavern became available, owner Steve Roop seized the opportunity. But instead of expanding his business of 13 years into the O'Donnell Street space, he decided to open a separate venue called Cask & Grain Kitchen.

"Canton needs more restaurants and less bars," said Roop, who owns the restaurant with chef Paul Hajewski.

Hajewski, a Baltimore International College grad who previously worked at The Inn at Brookeville Farms in Montgomery County, brings years of expertise to the kitchen, where he cooks different menus for Portside and Cask & Grain.

At the new restaurant, which opened in January, he puts a skilled spin on modern American interpretations that showcase "local foods as much as possible," our excellent waitress told us. The upscale cuisine is almost a surprise in Cask & Grain's two-level, farmhouse-style space.

While the casual rooms are stylish, with a particularly eye-catching rattan lighting centerpiece in the upstairs dining room, you wouldn't expect food of this caliber. Hajewski knows his stuff.

The wood-grilled oysters were the first of many dishes to make us pay attention. The prep of the day on our visit featured half shells treated to a jalapeno bacon and cornbread topping. They were delicious — and gone in no time.

Roop said the name Cask & Grain appealed to him because whiskey and wines are housed in casks and grain suggests food. The restaurant's drinks menu lives up to the first part of the moniker, with artisan cocktails made from an array of spirits, and a reasonably priced wine list. Craft beers from Maryland and beyond are also available.

As the evening progressed, we were glad that our courses were carefully paced so we could savor each plate. We were quite enamored with our appetizers to start.

The woodland mushrooms and cavatelli pasta were an earthy, aromatic mix, gently tossed with Tuscan kale and a slick of olive oil.

The sweet delicata squash and arugula salad was a fabulous combination, mixed with candied walnuts and sherry-mustard vinaigrette. Thin slices of Honeycrisp apple, fanned out on top, added another layer of crispness.

One of our prettiest dishes was the cream of mussel soup. The ethereal amber broth — loaded with tender mussels and emboldened with the licorice-tasting liqueur Pernod — was delivered in a burnt-orange terrine, alongside grilled bread. We were praising the dish before we even lifted our spoons.

The entrees were just as captivating. Each protein was stacked on a cache of unexpected accessories.

The pan-roasted monkfish was perched atop a potato salad sporting capers, pistachios and a quick douse of red-wine vinaigrette.

The tender pork collar from Mount Airy's Wagon Wheel Ranch was accompanied by Brussels sprouts, smoked cheddar grits and a piquant mustard cider jus.

The succulent Pennsylvania-based Elysian Fields Farm lamb porterhouse sheltered a white bean puree, heirloom carrots and a lemon-herb chermoula sauce.

Each bite of the three dishes revealed another tantalizing component to enhance the experience.

Desserts continued the bliss. A wedge of bittersweet chocolate tart was crowned with a ball of pistachio ice cream enhanced by a zigzag of heavenly butterscotch cream.

Our waitress brought us a knife and fork for the roasted Stayman-Winesap apple that was so pliant and heavenly it didn't need heavy-duty cutlery. The tender apple was filled with organic oats, draped with cider and capped with raw-honey ice cream.

Cask & Grain's version of flan was far from boring. The blood-orange dessert with cream cheese was dressed in caramel and had the additional benefit of a gingersnap crumble.

It was a pleasure to sample the exquisite cuisine that Cask & Grain has envisioned for its guests. Sometimes, good things do come in small packages.

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Cask & Grain Kitchen

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 2823 O'Donnell St., Canton

Contact: 443-948-5576, caskandgrainkitchen.com

Open: Kitchen hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; weekend brunch with live jazz starts April 2.

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$40; entrees, $15-$26.

Food: Modern American

Noise/TVs: The upstairs dining room was almost empty on our visit, making it easy for conversation; no TVs.

Service: Our personable server was knowledgeable about the menu.

Parking: Street parking

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

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