Dinner at Magdalena, the restaurant in the newly opened Ivy Hotel, is gorgeous. The space, the drinks and the food come together to create one of the loveliest dining experiences Baltimore has to offer.
Magdalena's team uses the phrase "upscale casual" to describe the restaurant, which opened in June. Though it is comfortable, casual might be a stretch. The food is carefully conceived, refined and grown up, and Magdalena is sure to become a favorite special-occasion spot. It deserves the honor.
The space is composed of several small dining rooms, each with its own cozy and pretty personality. One, lined with wine racks, could be in the cellar of a French chateau. The bar, which was the only space occupied during our midweek dinner, is elegant but not at all stuffy. With comfortable leather banquettes the color of toffee, bright murals on the walls and large windows looking out over a walled courtyard lined by beds of herbs, the atmosphere is warm, inviting and, like the food, sophisticated.
Chef Mark Levy worked at The Point, a five-star resort in the Adirondacks before christening his new, state-of-the art kitchen in Baltimore. His food at Magdalena shows off those high-end roots.
Our meal started with a basket of beet-studded rolls, served with horseradish butter so good we could eat it by the spoonful. After that came tiny cups of corn chowder, seasoned beautifully and as sweet as an ear of freshly shucked, midsummer Silver Queen.
Levy's menu is thoughtful, brief and constantly evolving. Appetizers and entrees are intricate, with many elements, each playing a crucial role. Levy obviously thinks about more than flavor — his dishes are full of interesting textural combinations and visual appeal.
We were blown away by the appetizers. In a ceviche of Ocean City scallops, thin rounds of scallop floated in tomato water dotted with pale green wasabi "flowers." As we scooped up the shellfish, we were surprised by little crunchy bits. They made the refined dish more fun and we could not figure out what they were. It turns out they were wild rice grains that were puffed, then fried. Genius.
A terrine of duck confit served with foie gras-stuffed Yorkshire pudding was as sumptuous as it sounds. A dollop of raspberry marmalade cut its fatty intensity with welcome tartness.
Braised octopus was tender and subtle, playing nicely with bits of olive and cucumber. On that plate, our favorite element was also the most rustic: A salt cod fritter, crispy on the outside and warm and soft inside, was an excellent counterpoint to the chewier octopus.
A pork belly entree, served with oyster mushrooms, clams and briny capers, was tender and lovingly seasoned. Seared black bass, plated over bright orange sweet potato puree, with fried oysters, was well conceived texturally and in terms of flavor.
Our favorite dish of the evening was the menu's meatless option. Clearly not an afterthought tucked onto the menu to appease vegetarians, the risotto mixed with peas and chanterelles and topped with thin shavings of Australian truffle was a showstopper. In the center of the plate, a poached egg encrusted in a crispy coating was earthy, creamy and fabulous. Even on a plate that included truffles, that simple egg managed to take top billing.
The meal wasn't without a few off notes, but none were major problems. The black bass might have sat a minute too long before delivery; it wasn't quite overcooked, but it was a bit past perfect. Instead of a bound wine list, we were handed a stack of printed paper, stapled at one corner. The list itself was extensive and thoughtful, but the presentation felt off.
The only glitch of note came at the start of our meal, with a round of cocktails that took too long for no clear reason. The drinks — a minty mule; a bourbon-laced take on the Arnold Palmer called the Arnold Bawlmer; and Boozy Buddha, a fresh concoction of watermelon, Thai basil and gin — were nicely balanced and very likable. We just wished we had gotten them sooner.
Overall, though, service was good. Our waiter was knowledgeable and the food was paced correctly. Every table seemed well-tended, receiving occasional visits from a manager in addition to one or two members of the wait staff.
Desserts were as carefully constructed and lovely as the rest of the meal, though we had some quibbles. We were divided on a slice of dense chocolate tart paired with almond ice cream. The ice cream was a universal hit, but some at our table thought the tart was too bitter.
An enormous parfait layering sour cream ice cream, cubes of elderflower jelly and tiny rhubarb meringues was, like the savory dishes, a wonderland of textures and flavors. It was less refined than the rest of the meal and might have been a little too large, but it was a lot of fun.
In fact, the element of fun was the most surprising part of dinner at Magdalena. Given its location in a hotel that is garnering headlines for its posh and expensive rooms, Magdalena could probably get away with stuffier food and higher prices. Dinner is expensive but not unreasonable. And the food, for all its careful presentation and refined creativity, is both accessible and joyful.