You may feel like the new Clementine in Hamilton is deja vu all over again in a good way if you enjoy the SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill. After all, Winston Blick, who is chef and the owner of Clementine along with his wife, Cristin Dadant, headed SoBo's kitchen for a decade.
The restaurants look somewhat different but have much of the same feeling: a neighborhood gathering place where kids are welcome, but also where you'll get grown-up food. Clementine, so named to suggest both the Southern nature of the food and its French and Spanish influences, is stylishly done up with dark blue walls, wooden chairs and tables, a pressed tin ceiling, revolving ceiling fans, terrazzo flooring, and an attractive charcuterie case in back. The vintage lettering of the sign out front suggests that Clementine is trying to fit unobtrusively into the historical nature of the neighborhood, rather than to be cutting-edge or trendy.
And indeed, that's what dinner at Clementine ends up being: good, comfortable food brought to you by nice people. In this day and age, and in the dead of summer, you don't expect to see quite such a meat-heavy menu, but go with the flow and start with the charcuterie plate. This is Blick's specialty. The meats come with house-made condiments that add accents of sweet, sour, spice and fruit to the rustic, seductive, pork-and-mushroom sausage, the swirl of shrimp and crab pate and a smooth but assertive duck liver pate.
There is one other appetizer, beef cured in-house and arranged in paper-thin slices with lemon zest and olive oil so it resembles carpaccio. It isn't as impressive as the charcuterie plate because its saltiness overwhelms the meat.
If neither of these appeals, you could start with a soup, like the smooth, fresh-tasting gazpacho, or a vegetable-heavy (a good thing) house salad with dressings you won't run into every day. The choice is green goddess or roasted tomato and basil vinaigrette. Or you could throw caution to the winds and have Clementine's deadly good mac and cheese, baked to order so it's hot, bubbly and overwhelmingly rich, with nice crusty edges.
Entrees come in man-size portions with lots of vegetables and starch, and no tomfoolery with garnishes, although the plates are attractive. A typical one is the center-cut pork chop, meaty, huge and cooked through but still juicy. It has a touch of molasses and chevre as gilding, but the meat is so good it doesn't really need them. There's a delicious pile of cheesy mashed potatoes along with sauteed vegetables.
The kitchen does a fine job of cooking its meats the old-fashioned way without drying them out. Like the pork chop, the baked chicken breast with wing is cooked through but still moist and tender. This time, sweet potatoes and green beans are the supporting cast.
Not everything is classic comfort food. Catfish fillets with brown rice and asparagus have decidedly Asian notes of soy and sesame, but the delicate flavor of the fish still comes through. And one of the hits of the evening was the vegetarian frittata, served at room temperature in the traditional European style (the server made sure to warn us of that fact). Perched on a bed of mesclun, it's filled with Swiss and tetilla, a mild Spanish cheese, along with eggplant, onion and mushrooms.
Desserts vary, depending on what Blick's mother decides to make. The evening we were there, they arrived as we were eating and tasted as if they had just been baked. They tend to the homey and old-fashioned, like the coconut cake with boiled icing; but the strawberry-blueberry shortcake, made with a warm homemade biscuit and fresh whipped cream, could hold its own with the trendiest desserts around.
Clementine doesn't have a liquor license yet, but you're welcome to provide your own alcohol. The menu suggests bringing vodka or rum to have with the restaurant's basil lime elixir, but we were less daring and settled for wine. It was chilled in an attractive, old-fashioned aluminum bucket, and there's a $5 corkage fee per table, not bottle.
Winston Blick finally has his own restaurant, and he wisely wasn't too proud to take what worked at SoBo and make it his own. I don't want to make too much of the similarities; in some ways, Clementine is the new, improved model when you're talking about a neighborhood place with good food at very reasonable prices, a likable staff and a great vibe. My prediction is that Clementine will have the same success that SoBo has.