The Food Market is the restaurant that everyone wanted. The new Hampden hot spot from Chad Gauss, formerly of the City Cafe, has been open only for five weeks, but it established itself as a favorite in no time flat.
As executive chef at City Cafe, Gauss performed the neat trick of satisfying a conservative customer base while raising their expectations. It was a brilliant balancing act, but with a place of his own — his partner is Elan Kotz, a front-of-house veteran of Aldo's in Little Italy — Gauss gets to be Gauss.
Gauss has described the Food Market's approach as "basically blue-collar food in a white-collar execution." That means a fundamentally accessible menu but with enough playful moments to hold a diner's interest. He and Kotz have given diners something else they want: a big, wide space to crowd themselves into. The fussy room is history.
The dinner menu begins with table snacks, bistro versions of pub fare like risotto-crusted mozzarella, Buffalo-style fried pickles and Amish hot pretzels. Think of them as an introduction to the Food Market's confident sauce-making — a bright tomato sauce for the fresh and gooey mozzarella, an assertive Gorgonzola for the crispy pickles and a velvety cheese sauce for the pretzels.
Some of the meal's highlights were specials — fresh tomatoes layered with burrata and drizzled with unfiltered olive oil, and a plate of three grilled heads-on shrimp layered on top of grilled pineapple squares. Next come salads and perfectly turned-out appetizers like plump and juicy fried oysters coated in cracker meal and served with a bacon-and-egg emulsion and a green hot sauce, and seared salt-and-pepper tuna with an avocado tzatziki and marinated cucumbers.
At this point, some places lose momentum, but Gauss has good ideas about how to keep flavor coming and your interest high. For a wild salmon entree, he uses a gremolata oil, which lifts the salmon's flavor without dulling its color, and serves it with strips of grilled zucchini and a potato pancake. The kitchen knows when to pull back. The steak frites are a plate of tender sirloin and hot garlic fries served in a squat little brown paper bag.
A knucklehead dish, spaghetti and crab meatballs, comes almost as a relief. There's a reason why no one's thought of this dish before: It doesn't work, and especially not with bland imported crab meat. The spaghetti itself, tossed in a fine Fra Diavolo sauce, was terrifically tasty, though.
Right now, everything else is working, from the nuts — served hot, tossed in rosemary, duck fat, brown sugar and sea salt, as good as they sound — to the ideal summer dessert list. There's a crazily good whipped cheesecake, topped with graham cracker croutons, that you spoon greedily out of a jar; a crackerjack strawberry "quick" creme brulee; and, a City Cafe favorite, a Heath Bar bread pudding topped with good whipped cream and condensed milk caramel.
The menu is supported by a sharp wine list, everything available by either the bottle or the glass; cocktails mixed for flavor and potency; and a thoughtful handful of nonalcoholic drinks, like fresh berry lemonade and a strawberry-basil smash. Only the haphazard beer list fails to register.
Gauss and Kotz have assembled a serving staff of nice people. The Food Market has been busy from its opening day, and they've responded well. Food comes out when you expect it, and plates have been cleared in anticipation. These days, reservations are almost essential. But you can try showing up early, or finding a seat at the bar.
The noise level has been a problem for some diners, but it wasn't a problem where we were seated, at one of the tables near the front window. These are sweet tables, with a great view beyond the 12-seat bar, through the long, spare 90-seat dining room all the way back to the open kitchen. And the noise level isn't enough of a problem to keep people from piling in. Even so, Gauss has brought in a sound consultant to help. That's so him.
Filled with people, the Food Market is anything but stark. It's cheerful and warm. The far wall, behind the open kitchen, is painted, incongruously, a deep indigo blue, which not only makes the room come alive, but also serves as a witty visual metaphor for a restaurant that takes its cooking and service seriously — but not itself.
The Food Market
Where: 1017 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-366-0606, thefoodmarketbaltimore.com
Hours: Open daily for dinner and for brunch Friday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $6-15 Entrees, $15-$25