In November, "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" — celebrity chef Guy Fieri's self-explanatory hit show on the Food Network — highlighted three Baltimore restaurants, including Hamilton's Clementine, even though it does not naturally fit the TV show's title. Fieri fawned over co-owner and chef Winston Blick's farm-to-table plates like bacon-wrapped meatloaf and Asian-braised pork cheeks.
Like most "Diners" segments, the episode bypassed Clementine's bar program, which left me wondering, "Are the drinks as appetizing and thoughtful as the food?"
The answer, as I found out on a recent Saturday evening trip, is a solid yes. Sitting at the bar, I watched the two dining rooms fill up over a few hours as servers informed hopefuls on the phone that the night's reservation list was booked.
Opened in 2008, Clementine has built a trusted reputation in the city, and a single visit illustrates why: The charm feels built into the inviting building, while thoughtfulness and care seem to permeate everything in between.
An early arrival meant witnessing pre-dinner-shift preparation that included staffers sampling the smartly chosen beers on draft (Yards chocolate-flavored Love Stout, Flying Dog Bloodline IPA, Peak Organic Winter Session Ale and Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve) to better inform inquiring patrons. The weekly rotating draft selection (all $6) is small, but covered a lot of ground while showing another example of Clementine's discerning taste. The approximately 25 types of bottled beer are predictably craft, too.
This sense of consideration extends to the cocktail list, even if I did not fall completely in love with all three of the cocktails I tried. The results may not have been across-the-board fantastic — more like very good with one exception — but no one can say the drinks lacked imagination or regard.
The best was Clementine's popular house-made Elixir and Hooch, which has led to calls from customers asking for the elixir recipe, co-owner Cristin Dadant said. (She declines each time.) The bar offers three types of elixir bases: Rosemary-Lemon, Basil-Lime and Fresh Ginger. I chose the Basil-Lime ($8.50), whose bright, sugary flavor recalled the sweet treats dispensed from old-fashioned soda fountain machines.
Patrons also choose their own alcohol to mix with the elixir and soda water, and per the bartender's recommendation, I selected the organic Prairie cucumber-flavored vodka. The cucumber mellowed the lime beautifully, which led me to finish it more quickly than I expected. The cocktail felt perfect for summer days, but not out of place in mid-January. It is simply a great cocktail.
The next drink caught my attention because of an intriguing description. The Dublin or Nothin' ($11) features poitin, a clear spirit from Ireland distilled from sugar beets and malted barley that predates whiskey. For centuries, it was illegal — think of it like Irish moonshine — until the law was lifted in the late 1980s. Clementine combines Glendalough poitin with white port wine and house-made lavender-juniper-thyme bitters. Like most of Clementine's cocktails, the description is more complicated than the taste. Rightfully, the poitin is what you taste most, and as someone who has long preferred American whiskeys to Europe's similar offerings (the closest comparisons I can make to poitin), I appreciated both the liquor's woodsy flavor and its history lesson. The bartender explained the staff likes to find esoteric types of alcohol and then incorporate them into the menu. These people serve what they like to drink, and the bar benefits from it.
The one cocktail I would not order again was the Firebird ($10). Once again, the long-winded description drew me in: Scorpion aged mezcal, El Jimador silver tequila, Vya sweet vermouth and Hum Botanical Spirit (an intense crimson-colored liqueur made with kaffir lime, hibiscus, ginger and galangal). It's finished with a bourbon-smoked sea salt rim. It seemed like a lot to take in, but the cocktail was single-handedly dominated by the smoky mezcal flavor. Some recommend drinking mezcal neat to appreciate its bold flavor, and the Firebird seemed like further evidence as to why. At the bar, Clementine stays true to its brand of choosing each component thoughtfully, but that cannot save every drink alone. With such an intriguing flavor profile on paper, the Firebird disappointed because it was stuck on one note.
Naturally, not every cocktail will work for each palate, or perhaps the mixture of Firebird ingredients was a bit off for my order. Either way, the misstep did not cloud my ultimate judgment of Clementine. It has earned its fandom throughout the city, just as it did the recognition of cable TV. When you stay true to your principles — bold flavors, high-quality ingredients, well-trained staff and a penchant for taking risks — loyal customers (and in this case, cameras) often follow.