A rule that always applies, no matter the restaurant: The higher the cost, the higher the expectations.
I was reminded of this on a recent weekday night while seated at the bar inside Magdalena, the section of the luxurious Ivy Hotel in Mid-Town Belvedere open to the public. I enjoyed a night of good drinks, food and conversations with strangers, and yet couldn't help feeling just short of fully satisfied.
Wanting to be wowed, I left content. A $90 tab, before tip, will do that sometimes.
To be fair, the high prices were expected before I arrived since I knew the Ivy's basic story. It opened in mid-June with 18 suites, and nightly rental rates ranging from $475 to $1,475. For its upscale restaurant, operators hired British chef Mark Levy, who previously worked at a five-star resort in New York's Adirondack Mountains. As the Sun noted in a dining review from last year, the food reflects the hotel's high-end brand well.
If you can afford to stay at the Ivy, you likely won't be deterred by Magdalena's prices. For city residents like me — someone who seeks out food and drink as experiences while on a budget — it's a tougher sell. My bartender told me Magdalena would like to build a bigger bar crowd with neighbors, but I think it is hampered by its prices.
This was clearest on the seasonal drinks menu, which featured five cocktails ($14-$18) and 10 wines by the glass ($12-$18). (Magdalena also has bottles of popular craft beers and two types on draft; on my visit, it was Heavy Seas Cutlass ($6) and Paulaner Hefe-Weizen ($7) from Germany. There is no happy hour at Magdalena, so what you see is what you pay.
I couldn't resist a cocktail called the Bookie and its $18 pricetag, likely the highest-priced cocktail I've encountered while on the nightlife beat, and half the cost of my pork chop entree alone. I was led by curiosity: How good does a cocktail, just under $20, actually taste? Is it worth the cost?
The answers, on this night, were pretty good, but no. Made with Booker's bourbon, Averna Amaro, Luxardo maraschino and lemon, the Bookie appropriately centered its flavor on the small-batch whiskey, which is owned by the Jim Beam company. The maraschino's sugar brought out the bourbon's sweetness, while the lemon's citrus note brightened the back-end. It was a fine, smartly simple cocktail made by a bartender who followed best practices all night, like tasting the cocktail mid-construction with a stirrer.
My lone complaint, however, had nothing to do with the actual taste, and everything to do with cost, because I've had just as enjoyable bourbon cocktails all over the city at half the price. Granted, an uptick in price is expected at hotel restaurants, especially this one, but this felt more excessive than extravagant.
But if you can accept these price points, it's easy to enjoy yourself at Magdalena. The L-shaped bar was somewhat cramped, despite only five other patrons at the time of my early evening visit. The close quarters led to conversation with two strangers who said they lived across the street and usually stopped in for drinks once a week. They said they enjoyed Magdalena, and thought the neighborhood had slowly warmed up a bit since its opening, too.
As we chatted, I paired a glass of Soter's Planet Oregon pinot noir 2014 ($14) with dinner at the bartender's suggestion. Bolstered with notes of cherry and berries, the red wine tasted appealingly delicate with the juicy cut of pork and caramelized parsnips. (Entrees ranged from $33 to $48.) The recommendation worked well, as service was a strong point all night.
I ended my visit with a cocktail, Ziggy Stardust ($16), a recent addition named after the David Bowie persona. It featured Vieille Reserve Calvados apple brandy, blood orange, organic orange juice and pineapple. Its red-orange hue looked close to the red hair Bowie sported on the Ziggy Stardust Tour in the early '70s — a delightfully clever touch.
It was also an example of the creativity I expected from this type of bar program across the board, but missed on the previous cocktail. Instead of the Bookie, maybe I should have tried the more adventurous sounding Cask of Amontillado (Pedro Ximenez sherry, Templeton Rye whiskey, yuzu, clove honey and egg whites for $16). But it seemed fair, given the setting, to expect every cocktail to surprise and tantalize.
I left Magdalena happy that it exists — this type of fine dining adds to Baltimore's culinary profile — but uncertain when I'd return. Maybe a birthday or if my tax refund is generous. But even then, Baltimore has plenty of options that would work well and at less of a cost.
There's no denying Magdalena and its bar program are nice. But like the Ivy Hotel, they seem better suited for deep-pocketed visitors than most residents.