Food & Drink

New ownership means fresh start for Abacrombie

Baltimoreans who love good food had reason to worry about Abacrombie. Until previous owner/chef Sonny Sweetman left for greener pastures, it was one of our premier restaurants. After the restaurant and the bed and breakfast that housed it were sold, the dining room had a couple of false starts and then finally closed -- perhaps forever, it seemed.

But then a good thing happened. Jerry Pellegrino, owner of Corks in Federal Hill, took over the restaurant. He's working with Jesse Sandlin as executive chef and Greta Clausen as general manager.

I'm happy to report that this trio has created an Abacrombie as fine as the old one. It's a different restaurant -- one with its own strengths. In fact, the only significant way it suffers in comparison is that there is no fixed-price menu. The former Abacrombie was something of a bargain.

Of course, the new management faces the same problems as those of other restaurants in Baltimore's cultural district: How do you lure customers in when there isn't a concert at the Meyerhoff or a show at the Lyric? Conversely, how do you get the food out in a timely fashion to a packed dining room when there is an event?

We ate there twice, once when there was one and once when there wasn't. Both visits were successful, although I can see how the basement dining room might not seem lively enough for some when nothing is going on. I happened to like the peace and quiet and the extra attention we got from the servers when they weren't racing from table to table.

As for the decor, the simplicity of brick walls painted white and black-and-white tiled floors doesn't prepare you for the fact that the chairs are extremely comfortable and the white-clothed tables elaborately set -- down to a fish knife if you order seafood. This is a luxury restaurant disguised as a hip minimalist one.

The food is pretty luxurious too, with an all-European wine list to match. Even simple dishes, such as shrimp cocktail, become more adventuresome in Sandlin's hands. The shrimp are giants, peeled but their heads left on. They are arranged on a bed of faux seaweed (I would have preferred something a little less faux) with three little jars of sauces: a zippy seafood sauce that tastes homemade and two flavored "waters": one with tomato and vodka, the other with pepper and cilantro.

A frisee salad with Pink Lady apple slices, walnuts toasted to intensify their nutty flavor, a slice of soft, warm Camembert and a beautifully balanced vinaigrette was good enough to make strong men weep.

Sandlin handles more complicated dishes with aplomb, like the cloud of smoked salmon mousse with puff pastry and her take on the traditional smoked salmon accompaniments (capers, chives and creme fraiche).

The kitchen slipped a bit with the soup, a smooth split pea smoky with bacon that arrived lukewarm in a covered dish, but regained its footing with the seafood that followed. A delicate fillet of pompano had a golden crust of cornmeal and a generous spoonful of crab tossed with bearnaise on top. Spinach finished off the plate.

Beef cheeks are braised in red wine until they are as tender as pot roast. They are scented with vanilla, although the sauce isn't at all sweet. A swirl of whipped sweet potatoes and chard added balance to a great seasonal plate.

The fashion of serving the same meat prepared two different ways has never worked better than Abacrombie's version: charred, rare slices of duck breast that taste like good steak and fall-off-the-bone, crisp-skinned duck confit. Baby carrots and parsnips continued the seasonal theme, although by the time you read this, the kitchen may have moved on to a more springlike menu.

The winter menu sported one vegetarian dish, tender lasagna noodles layered with an almost obscenely rich combination of cheeses and wild mushrooms.

Abacrombie bakes its own excellent baguette and focaccia, so I was surprised the desserts -- with one exception -- didn't quite live up to the rest of the meal. They were fussy in ways that didn't work, like the apple crisp in warm apple cider "soup," which watered the crisp down. The "breakfast dessert," an elegant little take on french toast, maple syrup and bacon (crumbled bacon added a salty touch to decorative toffee), was clever rather than to die for, a quality I like in my desserts. My advice would be to head straight for the milk chocolate panna cotta with a phyllo purse filled with brownie. And don't miss the excellent coffee.

I don't want to encourage everyone to rush all at once to Abacrombie. An operation this small is going to have its off nights, particularly if it's crowded. But the question many Baltimore foodies had (can the new management live up to the standards set by Sweetman and his crew?) now has an answer. Sandlin and company are doing so very well, thank you.