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Restaurant review: As it grows, Clementine retains its charm

Since its spring 2008 opening, Clementine has doubled in size, acquired a liquor license and a regular bar crowd, and blossomed into a full-scale dining destination.

But Clementine remains true to its original charming self. The addition of a seated bar hasn't kept the young homeowners along this stretch of Harford Road from piling in here. Winston Blick, the chef and co-owner with Cristin Dadant, has stayed grounded in the sophisticated comfort food that first earned him a following at SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill.

I've used Vermont for a shorthand description of Clementine's culinary inclinations and rugged good looks, but I think I'd do better with Portland, Maine, where a colony of young chefs have imposed their own wood-splitting style on the farm-to-table movement. You could safely place Blick in the head-to-hoof crowd. And though he runs easily with the followers of the local and the seasonal, he's been known to go rogue. Roasted asparagus was on the menu in mid-November because, we were told, "Winston really loves asparagus."

When Clementine opened, Baltimore diners were just getting used to seeing charcuterie plates on dinner menus. No one has devoted more attention to this, with more consistently lovely results, than Blick and his crew. Saying the charcuterie course remains the highlight of a Clementine dinner is not a criticism of the rest of the kitchen's work, which, at its best, ranks among the tops in town. That the kitchen is also capable of the occasional dud speaks, at least to me, about its adventurous spirit more than anything.

Clementine's menu easily accommodates farmhand entrees like bacon-wrapped meatloaf and turkey pot pie and classic bistro items like escargots bouillabaisse and seared duck breast, as well as an occasional Asian-influenced fandango like miso-marinated grilled hiramasa, a top-notch yellowfish usually confined to sushi bars.

But about that charcuterie, which is sold both on Clementine's premises and at farmers' markets: It's top of the line. When we visited, the charcuterie plate, which changes often, included a snappy-skinned knockwurst, a luscious house-cured pork loin and bread-and-butter pickles. There was also a chicken-liver pate goosed up with dried cranberries, rum and honey, so rich and wicked that I wished I could eat it out of a pint container with a spoon.

A few charcuterie items are served by themselves. One night, the kitchen had whipped up a batch of teres major tartare; another night, it was nervily dressing some beautiful pork rillettes with a maple gastrique.

There are handful of other appetizer options, like a bowl of steamed mussels, scrubbed and healthy, served in a strong, malty broth of Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale with capicola and shallots. This was served with slices of grilled baguette but not enough of them — never enough — for broth-sopping.

Duck nachos didn't come off. The duck, had it been more thinly shredded, would have laced more evenly throughout the homemade tortilla chips. I think one of us got all of it. And the homemade cheese sauce, whatever it is, doesn't add any perceptible flavor. The "Fantastical Mac & Cheese" magically stands up all by itself on the plate, which Clementine's legion of very young customers must love. But adults will want sharper cheese flavors in their macaroni and cheese or, let's be honest, some pork mixed in it.

The best of Clementine's entrees are excellent. Chief among them is the panko-crusted seared bluefish, served with smoked Gouda mashed potatoes and tomato confit. The bluefish itself, a fragile thing often man-handled by kitchens, gets kid-glove treatment at Clementine. Stripped of its murky bits, its sweet flavor shines through. The panko crust adds warmth and texture. And there's this knockout plate of big-flavored, assertively spiced catfish-crawdad sausage; it's served with sauteed fennel, garlic and tarragon over black beans and jasmine rice and flanked by three pickled shrimp, bone white, and topped with caper remoulade.

There is good flavor throughout a roasted chicken breast but a few too many dry patches. It's served with smoked Gouda mashed potatoes, a bright leek-and-shallot beurre blanc and asparagus spears, which Blick likes to roast up to a salty snap. Hooray for asparagus in November. Those smoked Gouda mashed potatoes show up a lot on the menu, which says maybe more about sensible kitchen economics than a lack of imagination. I see no problem with it.

The fourth entree consisted entirely of homemade blue-cheese compound butter. That's how it tasted to us anyway, which was too bad, really. Underneath the butter was a perfectly grilled and juicy pork chop, with its own fine flavor.

Stocked generously with good domestic and imported beers, the bar has been a great addition. The cocktail program, which this season is at play with ciders, nectars and syrups, is exemplary, but the somewhat incoherent wine list could easily be rearranged to work better for the diner. Desserts are mostly old-fashioned cakes, some of which are contributed by Blick's mother. The coconut cake, especially, is blue-ribbon material.

Clementine is comfortable and, yes, it's Maine-cozy. On my recent visits, I saw a lot of people here talking to each other, the way people used to do in restaurants. The staff seems devoted to Clementine, which is always great to see.

An evening's only awkward moment might be the first few seconds, when incoming customers step into Clementine's entrance area. This space, adjacent to the bar, is ill-defined, and customers seem uncomfortable standing in it.

Woodberry Kitchen alum Andy Tzortzinis has recently joined Clementine's front-of-house staff. He'll figure something out.


Where: 5402 Harford Road, Hamilton

Contact: 410-444-1497 ,

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, lunch Wednesday through Sunday and breakfast Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$13; entrees, $15-$27

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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