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Five and dine: 5 Baltimore-area restaurants to try right now. Sample BBQ, snails and more

I’ve lost days of my life trying to decide where to eat. I scroll through Instagram and Google for inspiration while my indecisiveness wages war with my hunger. I look up and an hour has gone by. Joke’s on me, the restaurant I wanted to go to is actually about to close.

So that readers might not suffer a similar fate, here’s a list of new and newish restaurants in the Baltimore area that are worth a stop for lunch or dinner.

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Heritage Smokehouse: For Friday night dinner with the kids

This new barbecue joint on York Road checks all the boxes. Fun decor. Not crazy expensive. Free sparkling water. Oh yeah, and possibly the best-tasting barbecued meats and collard greens around.

Chef and owner George Marsh, formerly of Woodberry Kitchen and Parts and Labor, is passionate about butchery and smoking. While we spoke on the phone, he was in the middle of feeding logs into the pit for smoking sausage. “It’s a lot of work — maintaining the fire, maintaining the temperatures,” he said. But the flavor? Chef’s kiss.

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Owner George Marsh pulls cooked sausages out of the smoker at Heritage BBQ on Thursday, November 4.
Owner George Marsh pulls cooked sausages out of the smoker at Heritage BBQ on Thursday, November 4. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Heritage isn’t crazy expensive, but it’s also pricier than what I’m used to paying for barbecue. Platters range from $18 to $75, for the all-meat “Ron Swanson.” Then again, what isn’t more expensive lately? Place your order at the bar and take a seat. After dining here once for work, I’ve already been back on my nights off. Marsh says some customers have been coming in as often as four times a week, nearly every day the restaurant is open.

You must try the chicken. And the pork spare ribs. And whatever else they have cooking. In addition to traditional American-style barbecue, Marsh and his team offer specials like smoked trout on toast ($14) or pierogis with kielbasa and kraut ($16). “If you came in and had barbecue one day you could come in and get a completely different experience the next,” Marsh said.

Marsh’s wife, Jenni, is the restaurant’s pastry chef. Don’t miss her to-die-for chocolate cake ($8) with fudge frosting. It’s named for the couple’s 12-year-old son, Finn, a special needs kid who just loves that chocolate cake.

The Chocolate Cake sits on the bar at Heritage Smokehouse on Thursday, November 4.
The Chocolate Cake sits on the bar at Heritage Smokehouse on Thursday, November 4. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

The space feels like home. Knotty pine wood paneling conjures memories of grandma’s basement. Look for a 1970s needlepoint tray of cocktail recipes hanging on one wall. The artist: Marsh’s grandmother.

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5800 York Road, Mid-Govans. 443-438-7593. heritagesmokehousebalt.com

Allora: For a swoon-worthy Italian breakfast or lunch

Until my first visit to Allora, the Roman-style cafe in Mount Vernon, I’d never had espresso with tonic water. Sitting in a wingback chair, sipping the beverage through a pasta straw, I learned it’s delicious.

The airy, 18-seat restaurant from owners Brendan Hudson and David Monteagudo is full of happy revelations. Yes, you can put homemade jam on your chocolate croissant ($5). The brightness of the preserves is just the acidity to balance out the buttery pastry. And yes, bucatini is the greatest pasta there is — the hole running through the middle means that you’ll get sauce on the inside, too.

Hudson and Monteagudo met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and founded a catering company called Liliahna in Baltimore in 2016. Allora opened in September in the former Schola space.

For Hudson, restaurants are a family tradition: His grandfather was Frank Velleggia Sr, once owner of Velleggia’s in Little Italy. “I worked in the restaurant from ages 8 through 15,” said Hudson. “It’s definitely in my blood.” His family also owns Casa di Pasta, the Little Italy-based pasta manufacturer.

At Allora, the focus is on classic Roman ingredients and styles of cooking, inspired in part by the couple’s trips to the Eternal City. Feast on pasta made in house or by Casa di Pasta. We devoured the minimalistic gricia ($16), a traditional Roman pasta dish topped with crispy guanciale.

Want a drink with your lunch? Pick up a bottle at nearby Spirits of Mount Vernon beforehand. As for a liquor license of their own — Hudson says they’re working on it. Now open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, the restaurant will soon start serving dinner, too: 5-course tasting menus priced around $100-$130 per person.

1005 N. Charles Street, Mt. Vernon. 443-438-5499. allora1005.com

Milton Inn: For Baltimore Countians who miss Provence

Game birds are part of the French-influenced cuisine at the Milton Inn in Baltimore County.
Game birds are part of the French-influenced cuisine at the Milton Inn in Baltimore County.

Milton Inn, a Baltimore County institution going back decades, shut down during the pandemic. It reopened under new ownership and with a new identity courtesy of Foreman Wolf, the team behind Charleston and Petit Louis.

The vibe is French hunting lodge. During a recent visit, co-owner Tony Foreman greeted us at the host’s stand with a friendly “Bon soir.” In the kitchen, chef and partner Chris Scanga, formerly of Petit Louis, cooks up a roster of dishes that will be familiar to fans of the Roland Park bistro. Think French onion soup and escargot bathed in garlic butter. But at Milton Inn, Scanga has more room to play and experiment. Entrees include multiple game dishes like guinea fowl, venison and squab.

Unusual offerings, perhaps, but customers are eating it up.

“This is kind of hunt country,” Scanga says of the surrounding Sparks neighborhood. He’s even had multiple offers from guests to bring deer from their own home freezers. Scanga has yet to take anyone up on it, sourcing all meats from specialty purveyors instead.

Favorite dishes during a recent visit included the decadent gnocchi ($26) — perfect for fall — and a flawless escarole salad with pear and blue cheese (now off the menu). We fought over the final dish: plum tarte tatin ($11), like a rustic French version of apple pie. “Grandma cooking,” says Scanga. “That’s just supposed to make you feel food.”

14833 York Road, Sparks Glencoe. 410-771-4366. themiltoninn.com

Monarque: For a date night that actually feels like a date night

Milton Inn isn’t the only place to nibble escargot these days. Monarque, the sexy French steakhouse from the Atlas Restaurant Group, is another.

Its door tucked away between Atlas’ Tagliata and Elk Room in Harbor East, Monarque feels like a secret club, perhaps a portal to 1920s Paris. Performers take the corner stage every night during dinner. During our visit, the Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club of Baltimore transported diners to Montmartre. The band comes each Wednesday — they also have a standing date at Milton Inn.

An old-fashioned phone booth serves as a pass-through to another bar at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East, which is a French-themed restaurant and dinner theater and is part of the Atlas Restaurant Group. August 25, 2020
An old-fashioned phone booth serves as a pass-through to another bar at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East, which is a French-themed restaurant and dinner theater and is part of the Atlas Restaurant Group. August 25, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The food can be entertaining, too: try the beef tartare ($26), prepared tableside with a quail’s egg.

The menu from chef Marc Hennessy is all about the beef, with a few other entrees like a half roasted chicken ($36), dover sole ($65) and even a burger ($25). Steaks range from $45 to $145, and all sides must be ordered a la carte. Like Milton Inn, Monarque is a special occasion spot — or for someone with a king’s spending account.

The restaurant felt half-empty during a recent visit, particularly in contrast to crowded Tagliata. But in the era of social distancing, most guests may think that’s just fine.

1010 Fleet Street, Harbor East. 443-384-1480. monarquebaltimore.com

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The Charming Elephant: For dinner to-go that gets you out of a rut

If you’re growing weary of your go-to to-go places, try out the Charming Elephant, a Lao restaurant that opened in Canton late last year.

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The menu offers staples of Laos, a country bordering Thailand and Vietnam but with its own unique cuisine. Co-owner Vanessa Sipayboun, who runs the restaurant with her family, describes the flavor profiles as “earthy” and “on the spicier side.”

Look for dishes like nahm khao ($9.75), which has deep fried rice with cured sausage, ground pork and coconut. It’s served with a lettuce leaf, so you can make your own wrap. “A lot of Lao food tends to be eaten with your hands,” Sipayboun said.

Another Lao staple: kapoon ($14.99), with curry, noodles, coconut milk and shredded chicken. During the winter, some families will make a pot to eat throughout the week. Other customer favorites include lao sausages (around $13) and the curries — particularly basil eggplant ($14.25).

2324 Boston Street, Canton. 443-708-7762. charmcityelephant.com

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