Power Plant Live, once a faceless collection of bars for tourists, continues its transformation into a legitimate nightlife option for any Baltimorean with Kettle Hill, the attractive new restaurant and bar co-owned by Desmond Reilly and Kristopher Carr.
Formerly Babalu, the Theodore Roosevelt-inspired Kettle Hill is a strong anchor for Power Plant Live's needed face-lift, which includes the additions of Joe Squared and Leinenkugel Beer Garden.
Kettle Hill could be the most impressive of the lot, thanks to a simple yet radiant rustic design and an adventurous — albeit pricey — bar menu.
The key to appreciating Kettle Hill comes from knowing what it isn't: It will not replace your favorite corner bar, nor will it be an appropriate stop on your all-day bar crawl. Those in need of a canned Natty Boh and nachos for the game can skip it.
But for a date night or a round of drinks with a few friends, Kettle Hill makes plenty of sense.
The restaurant's dining room and well-lit bar are separated by a connecting hallway, but both boast clean, spacious designs, as if rustic and sterile could, and should, co-exist. Vintage-looking wood is everywhere — from the worn beer barrels hanging from the ceiling to the slickly finished bar top — but it seems plucked from a Crate & Barrel catalog. It's a delicate dance between hokey and sophisticated, but one Kettle Hill balances effectively.
With its bright ambience, Kettle Hill's bar feels instantly comfortable.
The accessible bartenders — all dressed in chambray shirts, tucked-in ties, bright smiles and overall emitting the vibe of an Abercrombie & Fitch employee — were welcoming, too, by never hesitating to suggest a cocktail from the dense but unflashy menu.
For the first round, my bartender recommended his favorite, the Buffalo Soldier ($12), a soothing, bourbon-based cocktail that mixes Woodford Reserve, vermouth and lemon juice, finished with Guinness. As the name suggests, it's best consumed slowly, with each sip blending the citrus and dark, bittersweet herbs. It was served over 2-inch ice cubes, an easy but smart detail.
The Buffalo Soldier fared better than the Charm City Collins ($11), which didn't pack the same punch of flavor or alcohol as the Soldier. On a sweltering Thursday night, the Collins, a mix of the locally made Sloop Betty Vodka, Campari and rosemary-infused cranberry lemonade, just wasn't cold enough.
The night improved with our second round. The too-simple-to-fail Gold Rush ($12) mixes Buffalo Trace bourbon with equal parts lemon juice and honey syrup. It was strong but wonderfully balanced, similar to an Arnold Palmer iced-tea-and-lemonade drink.
After my lackluster Collins, I was determined to find a cocktail I wouldn't soon forget. Enter the Rough and Tumble ($12), a small package with more than enough flavor to make up for its size.
The cocktail's ingredient list teased me — habanero shrub bitters (a combination of chile pepper, berry and spice extracts from New York organic bitters supplier Bittermens) and an egg white. I was apprehensive, but I found the components so bold — which also include Milagro Silver tequila, Hangar One Chipotle vodka, agave nectar and grapefruit juice — that resisting would feel like a personal failure.
The plunge paid off. The Rough and Tumble is one of the more unusual cocktails I've had in Baltimore because of its seesaw-like finish. At first taste, it's frothy and sweet because of the egg white and grapefruit juice, but the heat from the habanero and the vodka's peppery kick lingered. Like the best spicy food, the burn, which was never overpowering, became more addictive with each sip.
Open for three months, Kettle Hill is still finding its footing. When asked if it gets busy on weekends, the bartender conceded it's been uneven.
That's a shame, because the bar is doing many things right besides its hand-crafted cocktails, including a good-enough beer list with local taps (Flying Dog, Brewer's Art) and an all-over-the-map wine selection. But really, Kettle Hill is an ideal downtown date spot, well-suited for drinks before a concert or a nightcap after dinner, and it proves Power Plant Live can mature with grace.
Back story: The chic-meets-rustic American restaurant and bar joined Power Plant Live in late April. Keystone Hospitality partners Desmond Reilly and Kristopher Carr (along with a third partner, former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey) have taken their love of Theodore Roosevelt (specifically his time during theSpanish-American War) and molded it into a sophisticated date spot with unusual cocktails.
Parking: Valet parking ($7) is available starting at 5 p.m. There are also garages within walking distance.
Signature drink: With its egg white and habanero shrub bitters, the Rough and Tumble ($12) offers a cocktail experience that could confuse your tongue at first but will have you appreciating its sweet-and-spicy balancing act soon enough.
Where: 32 Market Place, Power Plant Live
Contact: 443-682-8007 or go to kettle-hill.com
Open: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 10:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday for brunch. Dinner is not available on Mondays.