Preserve, the cozy, vibrant bistro midway along Annapolis’ Main Street, is not for you … unless you’d welcome a happy jolt to your restaurant routine.
When so many menus, particularly in the downtown Annapolis wall-to-wall restaurant map, seem so much alike, Preserve is busily marching to a decidedly different drummer. And judging by a recent visit, diners have caught the rhythm.
The name is the clue to what inspires Preserve’s owners, Chef Jeremy Hoffman and wife Michelle, the general manager. Sustainable local meats, seafood and produce are their building blocks accented by their pickling, preserving and fermenting key ingredients. The result is lively eating in a casual setting.
It’s not a big space, but a long bar on one side of the room finds many a customer enjoying their happy hour menu and even dinner. Three tables are arranged looking out on Main Street (great for people watching and people watching you) and more tables line the other side of the narrow venue. Not so quiet, but a lot of fun.
Wine and beer snobs beware. The beverage list here is not long – by design. Wine, beer and even cocktails are keyed to enhancing the enjoyment of the food.
The Hoffmans’ dinner menu packs a lot of variety into just a dozen starters, six mains and the kitchen’s daily inventions, spawned by what’s in season. Vegan and gluten-free diners will find much to choose from as well.
Starter options include crispy kale, lamb dumplings, blue cheese pierogies, gulf shrimp lettuce wraps, and more. We chose the smokehouse salmon toast ($13) and Eastern Shore mushroom tart ($13).
A warm slice of mushroom tart, dark and rich with a light crust, was showered with a fresh pea tendril salad laced with a preserved lemon dressing. Perfect for a spring evening.
The smokehouse salmon toast looked pretty enough to pass for a dessert. Rectangles of excellent pumpernickel bread were a platform for layers of paper-thin salmon, onion mustard relish, quark (a creamy milk-based cheese) and salmon roe. To my surprise, it was light on the fork and with all those flavors merging nicely.
The special menu heading Pantry is your invitation to focus on the superb array of pickled vegetables prepared by Hoffman and his team. They run the gamut from light to quite tangy, but they add up to a crunchy, healthful side to both starters and entrees.
The current selection of mains features arctic char, a fish that unfortunately too few restaurants offer; pork with house-made sauerkraut, a pasta dish, fish and chips with local seafood and the chef’s riff on sauerbraten.
A potato and Parmesan agnolotti ($24) showed off the purses of stuffed pasta with a smooth garlic cream sauce and braised chard. Again, lighter eating than it appeared in the beautifully arranged bowl.
Pickling is a subtle player in the sauerbraten ($29). Local Roseda beef is braised with red cabbage and grainy mustard and served with nicely fried potato crisps. The result was hearty and satisfying.
Desserts are house-made. We tried a fine griddled bread pudding ($6), tender, warm and laced with fruit and topped with a vanilla rum sauce. The vegan pot de crème ($7) was a winner with fruit preserves at the bottom and dark chocolate spun to just the right texture on the spoon.
The kitchen and serving teams at Preserve do the owners proud. That’s why the Hoffmans include a three percent optional “labor of love” charge on each check to fund a benefit package. It’s optional. Pay it.
When Preserve debuted in 2015, I frankly was skeptical that it would survive. Only a handful of restaurants around here are built around the particular talents, visions and styles of their chefs. (Flamant in West Annapolis and Soul just off Forest Drive come to mind.)
If the restaurant is good, you come away with a sense of the personalities of the owners, even if you never meet them. As for Preserve, I’d bet the Hoffmans rock.
If you go
WHERE: 164 Main St., Annapolis
HOURS: Lunch: Tues. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Dinner: Tues. – Sat. 5 – 10 p.m. Sun.: 5 – 9 p.m. Brunch: Sat. & Sun. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Happy Hour: Tues. – Sun. 3-5 p.m.
CHEF: Jeremy Hoffman
1st COURSES: $9-17 MAINS: $23-32
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards