The new chef at Tark's Grill at Green Spring Station is tinkering with the menu just enough to stir up a little excitement. After eight years in operation, the popular Brooklandville restaurant was due for a food update.
Brendan McKinney became executive chef this year after Tark's former chef, Jeff Keeney, left to open his own place.
McKinney, a sous chef at the restaurant since last July, isn't making any major changes. But he is introducing new techniques to the kitchen's food prep.
"The owners allow me to do fun things," said McKinney, a Calvert Hall grad who abandoned a degree in finance from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia to pursue cooking. "I had to get back into what I love."
McKinney hand-grinds the beef for the burgers. He cooks meats sous-vide, a method using vacuum-sealed bags. And he's tweaking the components of staple menu items.
For example, the ahi tuna appetizer used to be served with wonton chips. Now, McKinney tucks a nest of seaweed salad alongside the cubes of fish.
The most notable change is that the menu section where diners could pick a seafood or meat, a type of preparation and a sauce is gone. The revised dinner menu is more concise, with light fare and entree items like a 6-ounce filet mignon, a mint-marinated swordfish and a chicken potpie that's been a mainstay for years.
When Tark's opened in 2008, skeptics wondered if it would succeed. The space seemed jinxed. A longtime favorite, Harvey's, closed in 2000 after a 20-year run, and then several restaurants came and went.
But Tark's had the right mix of clubby atmosphere and preppy ambiance to attract the Green Spring Valley folks who live nearby.
The restaurant's separate bar is a community hub, offering cocktails like a tequila old-fashioned and a melon-ball crush. There are suitable selections of craft beers and wine. The restaurant's glassed-in wall of wine bottles is impressive.
The dining room's dark wood and crisp white linens offer a family-friendly gathering spot with an American menu that features crab cakes, juicy burgers and the longtime favorite, Lindsay's Chicago chopped salad.
The outdoor patio with a stone fireplace was an immediate hit from its earliest days. In recent months, it's been closed for a renovation that will add a fountain, our server told us.
The service at Tark's is suited to the space — a soupcon of attitude and professionalism. Whenever we asked our waiter about a menu item that was prepared out of the building, he would wave his hand and say, "It's down the street."
We got underway with a cup of excellent Maryland crab soup and a sugar snap pea salad that was wonderful, except for one thing: The fluffy mixed greens tossed with radish slices and feta cheese were topped with snow peas.
We didn't mind the exchange, but maybe it would be better to call it a spring pea salad. The lemon-and-mint vinaigrette was refreshing.
The pork and pineapple pan-fried dumplings were terrific, though slightly chewy. The pineapple-infused soy sauce was a nice accompaniment.
We admire the chef's sous-vide cooking. The wagyu flank steak, tenderized for six hours with the slow-cooking method, was a meat lover's dream. The sliced meat, finished on the grill, was appropriately salted and presented at medium rare for utmost tenderness. Fat wedges of crusted potatoes were a creative alternative to the traditional thin fries usually served with steak and frites.
The 11-hour sous-vide, bone-in pork chop was also wonderful. The Flintstone-sized hunk of toothsome meat was boosted by the crunch of coleslaw and a pretty vegetable medley of squash, tomatoes, broccoli and snow peas.
Our other entree, a cedar-planked Atlantic salmon, was a pale-pink fillet served with a marmalade listed as kiwi pineapple on the menu, but the compote tasted more like soft baked apples. Basmati rice and steamed spinach made it a complete meal.
If you get nothing else for dessert, treat yourself to a scoop of local Taharka Brothers ice cream. We ordered vanilla, but we swear it was the honey graham flavor. We didn't mind. The rich frozen treat is delicious, whatever kind it is.
An individual serving of pineapple upside down cake was a great finish. The light-textured pound cake was topped with a ring of caramelized pineapple and dotted with a cherry. It's an old-fashioned dessert that deserves renewed respect.
We really enjoyed the coconut pound cake — moist, luscious and snowy with shredded coconut. The menu said it was homemade in Debbie Swift's 'Lovin' Oven. "Down the street," our server assured us.
There's such a great bonhomie at Tark's that you dismiss its few quirks. McKinney knows what his customers want. And he delivers.