In his 2009 book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," Michael Pollan famously implored the people of America to change the way they eat, saying, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Six years later, Americans still eat a whole lot of meat. But a new crop of restaurants has sprung up around the country that aim to prove that plants can be just as exciting as any meat dish. Encantada, while not exclusively vegetarian, is one of these places.
Despite a few service and kitchen stumbles, the restaurant makes a good case for setting aside our carnivorous habits, at least for one meal. What Encantada does right, it does beautifully.
The restaurant, which opened last month on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, is the brainchild of Birroteca and Nickel Taphouse owner Robbin Haas. The chef, Melanie Molinaro, came to Encantada from Birroteca.
Like Mr. Rain's Fun House, the previous restaurant atop the AVAM, Encantada's small space is fun, funky and bright. The walls contain wild artwork, consistent with the museum's collection of outsider art, and even the furniture — with glossy red benches and brightly patterned cushions — is visually stimulating.
The menu changes frequently, based on what's in season, and includes a variety of small, creative plates designed for sharing.
During our visit, the kitchen had run out of a few dishes, but the selection we ordered was thoughtful in its conception and presentation. We had quibbles with the preparation in a few spots, but taken as a whole, the meal impressed us.
The first plate — spicy cauliflower served with cool vegan ranch dressing, pickles and soft crouton-like bits of corn cake — set the bar high. Inspired by Nashville's famous hot chicken, the crispy-outside-tender-inside, saucy vegetable made us believe that anything chicken can do, cauliflower can do better.
Other unqualified hits included spicy, savory fried chickpeas, petite potato croquettes served with bright yellow saffron aioli and plump capers, a tangy bowl of crispy Brussels sprouts, and thinly sliced portobello "carpaccio" with bright, herbaceous chimichurri. Topped with pine nuts and flavored with white miso, the mushroom dish was an umami-bomb.
Most plates included multiple elements; some had so much happening we had trouble pinpointing the source of a certain flavor. But sometimes, as with a plate of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes sourced from the Zahradka Farm in Essex, the kitchen let the ingredients speak for themselves. Their accessories, including dollops of sweet black garlic and dehydrated olive oil in powder form, enhanced but didn't compete with the main event.
A couple dishes, though well-conceived, needed refining. Creamy burrata with peaches and peas sounded sweet and smooth and lovely — and with a tiny sprinkle of salt, or even a thin slice of bread, it would have been. Ricotta gnocchi swam in a savory, intensely mushroomy red sauce that we loved, but the pasta itself was a tiny bit overcooked. Long, skinny radishes with herb puree were pretty but inconsistently crispy and needed a heftier shake of salt.
Though most dishes focus on vegetables, during our visit, Encantada offered three plates with meat.
The duck breast with blackberries, blackberry gastrique and peas, and the Wagyu steak paired with horseradish foam and earthy beets were each carefully constructed and cooked nicely. A pork belly dish was not as successful. Though we enjoyed the flavors on the plate, including puree of carrot and a nutty cream that evoked thoughts of Thanksgiving, the belly itself was overcooked.
Desserts, including an ode to garden moss by way of a crumbled green mint and parsley cake, and a gold leaf-adorned mound of chocolate called "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg," wowed us visually, but both looked better than they tasted. They weren't unpleasant, but they didn't excite us, either.
On the other hand, cocktails were exciting, with fun drinks incorporating unusual ingredients. The best was a blood orange and tequila concoction called I Dream of Genie that was topped with an edible hibiscus that lent the citrusy drink a floral scent and visual drama.
Unfortunately, drinks also showcased one of the stickier points of the meal: the service. Our waitress was friendly, funny and knowledgeable, and the meal started off strong. The food was well-paced.
But in the middle of the meal, she forgot to place our drink order; after realizing and apologizing, she disappeared. Food continued to arrive, but the drinks we ordered sat on the bar within our sight for far too long before she finally reappeared and served them.
At that point, the restaurant was only sparsely populated; even if she had to step out, we wondered why someone else didn't bring us the drinks.
The drink incident, coupled with those few less-than-perfect dishes, made the end of the meal feel like a disappointing fizzle. But our memory of the start, especially of that terrific cauliflower, reminded us that it started with a bang.
Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore (Note: Diners do not need to pay admission to the museum to get into the restaurant.)
Contact: 410-752-1000; encantadabaltimore.com
Open: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Bits & pieces (small snacks), $5-$8; vegetable dishes, $6-$21; meat dishes, $17-$21
Food: Creative, vegetable-focused plates to share.
Noise/TVs: Background music quiet enough for conversation; one television that is not usually turned on.
Service: Friendly and knowledgeable but sporadically attentive.
Parking: Valet and street parking.
Special diets: The kitchen will accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
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