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Dining review

At Hampden’s Wicked Sisters, American food that’s wicked good

For The Baltimore Sun
The new restaurant in the old McCabe's spot serves comfort food with flair.

Hampden is having a bit of a restaurant boom — Five and Dime Ale House, Mount Everest Restaurant and Polenta to name a few recent additions. Now Wicked Sisters has joined the pack.

The casual-fare restaurant opened in late October and is the latest offering from Charlie Gjerde, who owns several places around town, including Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point and Huck's American Craft in Brewers Hill.

It is named after his business partners, Lori Gjerde (his wife) and Carrie Podles, who are real-life sisters.

"They came up with the idea that they are wicked sisters," Charlie Gjerde said.

A photo of the women as girls is featured on the menu. Their sweet, angelic looks are the opposite of wicked.

The building of Wicked Sisters had more to do with a labor of love. "Construction went on forever," Gjerde said.

The trio took over the old McCabe's — a longtime popular eatery — after a fire forced its closing in 2014. The smoke-saturated interior needed to be gutted and redone, from the floors to the kitchen. In the process, the owners decided to turn the second floor into another bar and dining area in addition to the ones on the first level.

The result is a stark but fresh white-brick minimalist design with bare wood tables and polished floors. The restaurant seats about 150 people.

In a nod to the past, Gjerde brought in Jason Horowitz as the chef. Horowitz was the former executive chef at Joy America Cafe, the now-closed restaurant at the American Visionary Art Museum run by Gjerde and his James Beard Award-winning brother, Spike, who owns Woodberry Kitchen among other restaurants.

"We needed a chef with a big personality to run the ship," Charlie Gjerde said. "He's a force to be reckoned with."

Horowitz's expertise comes across in his preparations, which include a McCabe burger as an homage to the former tavern. It's not the same patty that was once served there, but it's a great tribute, with a blend of chuck, brisket and short rib served on brioche with lettuce and tomato.

The menu is an accessible mix of appetizers, salads, soups and sandwiches, with several entrees offered after 5 p.m. There are kids' meals, too, with items like chicken tenders and a French bread pizza.

Our server was pleasant and professional, though he missed an item we ordered, which he was quick to remedy. But the lapse was probably because the restaurant can be loud at peak times.

The bars and dining rooms flow into each other, creating a boisterous atmosphere as guests commune over drinks and food. There are craft cocktails, crushes, wines and dozens of beers, many local and on tap.

We could have feasted on just the appetizers during our visit.

The roasted shishito peppers with Sriracha salt and lime were great munchies. The slender peppers are a Japanese varietal that is popping up on menus these days. What makes them interesting is that while most of them are mild, some have a kick — nothing scary, just a tantalizing zing.

And just when I thought I couldn't bear to eat another roasted Brussels sprout this season, along comes Wicked Sisters' version, and it's wonderful. These sprouts are flash-fried and treated to a honey-Sriracha glaze.

The crab mac and cheese, a shareable portion delivered in a hot cast-iron skillet, was also captivating. It had enough lump crab to remind us of summer crab feasts.

We indulged in a mug of butternut squash soup that was silky, smooth and dotted with roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) that add an agreeable crunch. Order the suggested cheesy garlic bread ($3 extra) for a trip back to childhood.

We moved on to entrees and were glad we did. The tender, slow-roasted lamb shank was a mahogany wonder adorned with balsamic-caramelized pearl onions and wrapped over creamy mashed potatoes.

The "everything bagel" salmon won rave reviews at our table. The generously portioned fish was slathered with Greek yogurt streaked with shaved fennel, then perched over a mound of crusty shredded potatoes.

We like the comfort-food idea of "meals for two" served family-style, and we found the Sunday chicken dinner was a great plate to share. The aromatic skillet brimmed with an organic roasted half-chicken, potatoes, carrots, celery and onions enriched with lemon, garlic and oregano.

The desserts are intriguing. An adults-only Winecream, made by a Baltimore company, is serious stuff, with an alcohol content similar to a glass of wine, Gjerde said. Flavors vary. On a recent visit, pumpkin spice was available, and it proved to be a delicious boozy, frozen treat.

There are also "walk-around" sundaes, so named because they are presented in a take-home Mason jar and can be eaten while you're mobile — at least, that's what our waiter said. We remain seated and still appreciated our Berger cookie ice-cream concoction with big chunks of cookies in it.

A selection of Smith Island cakes is offered. The chocolate was sold out, so we settled on coconut. It was good, but the seven-layer cake had a grainier texture than the traditional Eastern Shore confections we've had.

Charlie Gjerde seems to have found a niche in Hampden's growing restaurant scene. The only thing wicked about Wicked Sisters is that it's wicked good.

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Wicked Sisters

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Where: 3845 Falls Road, Hampden

Contact: 410-878-0884, wickedsistershampden.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, with brunch served 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends

Food: American

Noise/TVs: Reasonably loud; 12 TVs.

Service: Our waiter was affable and efficient.

Parking: Street parking; valet service after 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays.

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.]

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