A smaller version of the famed Eataly has come to Fells Point in the form of Modern Cook Shop. And I like it a lot.
Andy Gruver, who owns the new market-and-restaurant combo with business partner Jason Sanchez, said he was inspired by celebrity chef Mario Batali's Italian food halls in New York and Chicago.
"We wanted to bring a New York bodega feel to the neighborhood," said Gruver, who also owns Canton's Fork & Wrench with Sanchez.
But Modern Cook Shop in the Union Wharf apartment building isn't Italian-centric. The market offers a range of fresh produce, bread, milk and eggs, as well as staples like olive oil and flour. The restaurant serves New American fare with a focus on local ingredients.
There are three eating stations with stools where diners can enjoy baked goods and coffee, cold dishes like charcuterie, or hot plates, including pizza.
"People can experience the space as they choose," Gruver said. "They can bounce from counter to counter or grab a table."
A bar offers a thoughtful wine list, draft brews, and beer in cans and bottles. Draft and specialty cocktails, like a "black mountainside" with fresh blackberries and whiskey, are available, too.
And don't miss the nonalcoholic, house-made sodas. We enjoyed a fizzy blueberry drink that tasted just like the summer fruit.
Despite the nontraditional setup, you will still find the amenities of a restaurant. A hostess sat us at a table by the windows, where boxes of herbs create greenery and a homey vibe.
The mahogany-topped tables and cushioned seating were handmade by Gruver and Sanchez, who also crafted the rest of the interior. There's lots of beautiful wood, and if you like the furniture, you can buy it. Chairs run from $200 to $300 each, Gruver said. He hasn't decided on a price for the tables.
Our excellent waiter was happy to explain the concise but interesting menu overseen by chef Michael Gliniecki, who previously cooked at Fork & Wrench and Waterfront Kitchen in Fells Point. There are a smattering of dishes to share, small plates and entrees. The offerings fit on one page.
The house charcuterie for two was a lovely dish, with duck prosciutto, country pate and thick rounds of chicken-pork-mushroom sausage arranged on an earthenware plate dotted with grapes, mustard seeds and pickled okra.
The chilled asparagus vichyssoise was an elegant version of the soup, with a single scallop set like an island amid the rich pale-green broth.
A salad called "simple greens" was anything but basic when it came to its still-life composition; it tasted as good as it looked. Fresh, crisp greens from local Urban Pastoral Collective were displayed in a bowl with cherry tomatoes, chunky radishes, yellow carrots and broccoli raab in a pool of tangy buttermilk dressing.
The pan-roasted chicken entree was terrific. It's proof the plebian poultry doesn't have to be a bland, everyday dish. The moist chicken breast was sliced with its crispy, seasoned skin intact and surrounded by sweet, nutty sunchokes and a mushroom and corn medley.
The picture-perfect cioppino was another winner. A head-on jumbo shrimp was the centerpiece of a melange of clams, mussels and a fat scallop sitting pretty in a heady garlicky broth with charred tomatoes. You'll be grateful for the grilled crusty bread for sopping up the juices.
The skirt steak was a very brown dish with hunks of tender meat, roasted potatoes and onions in a veal reduction. It was a generous portion that would have benefited from an accompanying green.
Desserts change daily, our server said. On our visit, a fluffy ricotta cheesecake with a berry compote was the single offering. It was a fine ending.
Gruver and Sanchez have masterminded a great concept for the neighborhood, now housing hundreds of apartments. People can stop by for essential groceries, grab a pastry or stay for a meal.
But you don't have to live there. Outside visitors will feel just as comfortable stopping by Modern Cook Shop as residents.