Don't Know Tavern certain to serve more than pub grub
By By Richard Gorelick Special to The Baltimore Sun
Mar 19, 2009 at 3:00 AM
The handsomely renovated Don't Know Tavern bills itself as a "sports bar and grill." The surprising thing about it is how good the grill part is. The menu is really smart and exceptionally well balanced between pub grub and more upscale fare. So, appetizers comprise not only nachos, wings and steamed shrimp, but blackened scallops, chipotle hummus and ratatouille, too. There are strip steak and braised ribs among the entrees, but also a sea bass cioppino, an enterprising duck-and-goose creation and an herb-roasted rack of lamb in a three-mustard cream.
It's one of the nicer menus I've seen in a while, and, with a few minor exceptions, the kitchen's execution of the menu was solid, sometimes impressive. Throw in what I think are reasonable prices and good service - a bit casual but efficient - and Federal Hill's Don't Know Tavern starts to sound like the kind of tavern anyone would love to have in his neighborhood.
There are two things to keep in mind. First, it is a sports bar. There are dozens of televisions, tuned into different channels, placed all around the large and contemporary front bar and dining room. When we visited, the sound was turned off on all of them - manager Steve Granowski told me that this is typically the case - and satellite radio was piped throughout. The other thing is that the only seating option in the dining room is those high tables, which are just not comfortable for everybody.
There's a lot I want to try. Even with five at our table, we barely scratched the surface. I'm interested in that cioppino, and the lamb, and also a warm bacon spinach salad with cranberry Stilton, the French onion soup and a French dip sandwich.
What we had, we mostly liked. Blackened scallops gave off some real heat and were cooked just right, but what made this a great appetizer was the accompanying timbale of black bean-and-corn relish and the ancho vinaigrette. Similarly, a plate of large, nicely browned pierogi was prettied up with a pile of sauteed onions (some of which were undercooked), and a snappy peanut dipping sauce helped out the bland potato filling.
I liked the multicolored chips in the nacho appetizer, and I appreciated the corn and black beans layered into it. But there was way too much gloppy bland cheese covering all of it.
That duck entree was a doozy, a succulent smoked duck breast and slivers of seared foie gras served with orzo pilaf in a hearty duck broth. This was an ambitious and very rich dish, and the kitchen pulled it off.
I love that a neighborhood joint is gracing a basic bacon-wrapped filet mignon with a green-peppercorn demi-glace, chive-and-ricotta gnocchi and crisp green beans. I'm impressed that one burger option is Kobe and the other one is bison - the latter slathered with Buffalo fixings, better than it sounds.
Among the specials when we visited were a few relative oddities, including Brazilian-style pacu fish ribs, which are marketed as a healthy alternative to classic barbecued ribs. The pacu flesh does hold up to strong barbecue flavor, but there were a few too many small bones to deal with. An appetizer of stone crab claws wasn't worth the trouble it took to crack them open.
Other things I like about Don't Know Tavern: Its Web site is well organized, drafts are served in imperial (20 ounce) pints, the garlic-herb french fries are terrific, and there's a "chipwich" sundae on the dessert menu.