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Q&A: Andrew Carmellini, Luke Ostrom on Rye Street Tavern and Chesapeake cuisine

Luke Ostrom and Chef Andrew Carmellini, two of three partners in the NoHo Hospitality Group, will open Rye Street Tavern next to the Sagamore Spirit distillery next week. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

NoHo Hospitality Group, the New York-based restaurant group headed by chef Andrew Carmellini, Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard, is opening its second Baltimore outpost next week: Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington.

Set to open Tuesday, the new restaurant adjacent to Sagamore Spirit distillery comes on the heels of their first local restaurant and bar, Rec Pier Chop House and the Cannon Room at the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore in Fells Point. Rye Street Tavern will initially open for drinks and dinner, adding brunch and lunch service within about a month and employing about 140 people.

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We sat down with Carmellini, a James Beard Award winner, and Ostrom to talk about their entry into Baltimore and impressions of the city's food scene.

How have things been at the hotel and has it met your expectations?

Luke Ostrom: I'd say the first six months have been pretty great. They've in a lot of ways exceeded our expectations as far as the volume of people that have really shown a lot of interest in checking it out. We're doing a full meal over there so we've been very busy.

Andrew Carmellini: I think we were a little bit overwhelmed in a way because when you come to a new city — we're based in New York but we have one restaurant in Miami — so when you come to a new city there's some apprehension. It's like, are people going to like it? Are people going to show up? We have a great local partner and we're here to represent and do a great job, to do what we do. And people showed up. We had to adjust some things in the beginning just to be able to control it in a nice way, but now six months in, the team's stabilized, everyone feels good, those kind of first-month jitters are not there anymore.

What sort of adjustments did you have to make?

AC: One of the things we learned right away is Baltimore likes a cocktail, which is great, we love cocktails. We made some adjustments just to be able to sell a lot of cocktails in a right way, in a quick way, and do what we do and just adjust locally, which was really more of a speed issue from the beginning. It was like, "Oh my god — we're selling so many cocktails. Let's adjust quickly, let's add a few more bartenders." We redesigned the bar a little bit.

LO: We literally physically had to redo the bar a little bit just because we were not able to keep up with the volume of cocktails, which are great problems to have obviously. People like to drink, we like to make drinks, so it's been working.

One of the things we learned right away is Baltimore likes a cocktail.


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What do you hope to achieve with Rye Street Tavern, and what opportunities and challenges do you see? Port Covington is interesting because you're not only entering a new market, you're also entering a destination in the making, so how do you approach that?

AC: From a restaurant standpoint, we're still going to do what we do. The building is very, very, very beautiful. Patrick Sutton did an amazing job with the design here. And part of this training process we're going through now is just when people come to exude a tavern type of feel. And for me like a great tavern serves great food and serves great drinks but also has a "welcome home" kind of atmosphere. And in a neighborhood where there is no neighborhood right now, it really is a destination. But even coming from Fells or coming from Fed Hill, or if you're north or south of the city on the 95 corridor, you don't have to go very far and you feel like you're somewhere else, which is kind of interesting. If you're coming through the tunnel it's the first stop and you really feel like you're not in Baltimore, but you're in Baltimore. And so it's going to be a destination that's not far, kind of almost like you're coming down the Eastern Shore but you're just a couple neighborhoods away.

LO: In a city like Baltimore, a lot of people are getting around the city in a lot of different ways. New York, where we're based out of, is a lot more kind of people walking around, neighborhood spots, which Baltimore definitely has, but I think generally people are pretty accustomed to hopping in a car, making a little bit of a journey over to whatever neighborhood they're going to go to. This just happens to be another one that's not too far away, just being very developed now.

AC: The inside feels very warm, so like in the winter when it's a little bit colder out I think it's going to have a nice pub atmosphere, a nice tavern atmosphere. And then in the summertime the whole building opens up to the outside and on the water, which I think is going to be a place to come when it's warm outside, but also cozy when it's cold outside.

Can you talk about the type of food you'll be serving?

AC: It's going to be very different from Rec Pier Chop House. Where that's Italian and steak, Rye Street will be very American and not totally seafood-centric, but there will be more seafood dishes here. And American for us is kind of the American classics that we know and love and great versions of those. I love fried chicken so we'll have my fried chicken and variations on fried chicken, that kind of ingredient-focused, new American focus. Probably my favorite thing we're going to do here is similar to what we do at the Dutch in New York, and that's that modern roots cooking, modern soul food, kind of like what my grandmother cooked, what your grandmother cooked, and how that goes into the American story.

What are your thoughts on Baltimore's food scene?

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LO: I think a lot of cities across America beyond just the biggest cities really have developed some pretty great food scenes even if they're small because there's a lot of support from the community just really wanting great restaurants. So Baltimore certainly has a food scene and certainly has good restaurants. I'd say generally I've found from the community that they want and deserve just more, they want more good restaurants. We're hoping to just really be a part of that community and add what we do to contribute to what's already going on here.

AC: We've been to a bunch of different organic farms, we went to some local farms to see pork production and beef production in Northern Virginia, and we've gone down to the Shore a couple times to visit some crab people and people fishing for rock fish. And there's kind of a distinct vibe to the Chesapeake food community. As an outsider it seems to me that outside of the press that Spike [Gjerde] has gotten, deservedly, that everyone's not aware of it really. Where in New York we have a lot of great farming going on, a lot of great animal husbandry going on, we're still kind of discovering it and I think the story's a little bit stronger as a story. The Chesapeake, I don't know that the country knows it as well as they might know the South or Pacific Northwest food or kind of what's going on, so it's going to be interesting to see that evolve.

Is there anything different about how your source down here versus in New York?

AC: No, same approach. For us always local is important but it's not the most important. You know, obviously good quality, good tasting product is the most important. At Rec Pier we did a mix where we found a great source for dry-aged Northern Virginia beef. We went there, we visited them, we kind of tasted through everything, and then we took our favorite cuts, our favorite farms that were doing something and then combined that with the stuff we do in New York. So a little bit of flavor of what we do in New York. As far as beef, we get most of our beef or steaks from one particular ranch in Nebraska that does a really good job, has a nice sustainable program as well as amazing tasting beef, so it's kind of combining like great local sources with what we do up in the city.

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I’ve found from the community that they want and deserve just more, they want more good restaurants. We’re hoping to just really be a part of that community.


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Are there any local restaurants or chefs that have caught your attention?

AC: We weirdly hang out a lot at Bar Clavel. It's a great spot, good cocktails. We love Mexican food, I'm down in Mexico a lot, and it just has a good vibe there.

You're opening a spot in Detroit as well. Is there anything you've learned from coming to Baltimore that will inform you as you make a move to a similar city?

AC: It's interesting, very similar to Baltimore because we're going to have a very strong local partner there. And it's the Shinola Hotel, and so we partnered with Shinola and Dan Gilbert locally. That process of having someone that's there in the community already.

LO: It's a great approach to take it that way I think. If you have a great local partner who started pretty embedded in the community, and pretty dedicated to the community and just doing great things, it certainly makes it a different experience than us showing up and trying to do our thing and sort of figure it out on our own.

AC: And editing us in a way, also. We don't just want to be just like the New York guys that come in and say this is the way we do it, and like we're amazing. There's always something to prove in a way.

LO: It was really our mission in Baltimore to really learn how Baltimore does it, and just be able to come here and do what we do as part of that as opposed to just saying this is what we do.

AC: It's not just going to Vegas to open up another restaurant in a casino. We like a strong American story, and so I think Baltimore and Detroit, the place that they're at is I think different but similar in a way, so it's exciting to be part of that.

Tell me a bit more about your partnership with Kevin Plank and how you went about developing concepts for both this space and the Pendry, working with him and the Sagamore team.

LO: He's been a great partner, the Sagamore team has been obviously great partners, and we met them a number of years ago and really started talking about collaborating in the last couple years. What they do, they do very well. They have a lot of vision which is inspiring, and they're able to produce some pretty good results on development and building, which has been really great. And they've been really supportive, which makes a big difference.

When it comes to the actual concepts, there's a lot of conversation about that. I think when we first originally were thinking about what to do here, especially because our neighbor is an American rye distillery, it kind of screamed "Americana" as far as what we should do here. And I think what we really wanted to do with the Pendry hotel in Fells Point was something that was just a little bit of a different story as opposed to doing kind of the same story in a different way, and that's really where the Italian thing came over there. It also really fit the vibe of the space. And there's a history over there with the pier being up there, where so many immigrants came through, so many of whom were Italian, so there's a real connection I think to that neighborhood.

What do you hope Rye Street Tavern adds to Port Covington and to Baltimore overall?

LO: To Port Covington, we're hoping that we can be part of that initial flag that's planted. It's an incredible what I believe is like a couple-decade-long plan, they're really building the whole thing out, so it's a real long-term goal. And obviously that development started a while ago, but there's only a few things here now, we're one of the first ones in that group and I think probably what we hope to do over here is be a strong foundation for other developments and other small businesses to thrive here and job creation to thrive here and access to great waterfront and community involvement. That's our goal, that's our hope. And to make great food and shake great cocktails and have a lot of fun.

Chef Andrew Carmellini and Luke Ostrom are two of three partners in the NoHo Hospitality Group. They will open Rye Street Tavern, located next to the Sagamore Spirit distillery, next week. Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun.
Chef Andrew Carmellini and Luke Ostrom are two of three partners in the NoHo Hospitality Group. They will open Rye Street Tavern, located next to the Sagamore Spirit distillery, next week. Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Have there been any surprises that you've encountered in the last six months and the time leading up to that as you were moving into Baltimore?

AC: Not really, no. I mean, this is our 14th opening. We're used to the opening schedule and kind of the hecticness of it. You know, it's always dynamic to say the least when you're bringing 140 new people together to achieve one goal, especially in another city — which is not far away, it's a two-hour train ride — it's still different. It's a different service culture, it's different expectations. Yesterday [Wednesday], which was our second dress rehearsal, there were a lot of pins and needles and we were walking around and we're trying to tell everybody to just relax, have a good time. It's not so much about where the fork goes, it's more about the feeling that you're giving everyone. It is about where the fork goes, but it's also about how we make everyone feel. But no, no surprises.

LO: I'd say maybe like the pleasant surprise, which we were hoping for coming in, is I'd say generally we've found the local community to be pretty engaged and pretty accepting and pretty excited. I think it's our job to keep up the pace of great hospitality so they keep coming back obviously, but there's been a welcomeness and a warmness from Baltimore so far, it's really been nice.

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