Like many people, I’ve been eating a lot of carryout during the pandemic. There’s a certain novelty to scarfing a chef-prepared meal in the comfort of my own backyard.
But sometimes you want to don your best face mask, grab some hand sanitizer and get out of the house. Two outdoor dining experiences this fall, at two hot new restaurants in Baltimore, reminded me why we go out to eat in the first place.
They couldn’t have been more different: one, a rowhouse in Highlandtown specializing in comfort food, the other, a big, luxurious veranda in Harbor East offering elevated Latin cuisine. Both offer outdoor dining, which public health experts say is the safer option amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Dress in layers and go while you can. While both places will continue to seat outdoors into the colder months, it may soon be just too frigid for most of us to dine al fresco.
Let’s start at Sally O’s, a recent Highlandtown arrival from Jesse Sandlin, an alumna of “Top Chef” and many a restaurant in the greater Baltimore region. After her first cooking gig at Ann’s Dari Creme in Glen Burnie — and stints in California and Australia — she’s worked everywhere from upscale Charleston to Nacho Mama’s and a bison farm. She’s a skilled chef, but uses her powers to create food that’s straightforward and delicious.
Her new restaurant is well suited to Baltimore. Located in the former Laughing Pint and named for Sandlin’s grandmother, it’s cool yet down-to-earth and inexpensive enough to eat there on a weeknight.
Customers will be reassured to find that Sally O’s takes plenty of precautions when it comes to the coronavirus; tables get drenched in antiviral solution between use. The restaurant offers outdoor dining on their sidewalk and carryout only. Instead of paper menus, pull up the wine list on your phone and peruse the thoughtful selection.
Our knowledgeable server — the restaurant’s sommelier — offered context and insight on the meal but advised us to “eat our feelings” when it came to placing our orders. Fall flavors shine in dishes like the Schrute salad, named for “The Office” character, which puts the spotlight on roasted and pickled beets seasoned with cloves and other baking spices. That salad is no longer on the menu, but take my advice and order the beets alone ($5).
We also ordered the roasted bone marrow ($14), one of the more avant-garde options on the menu. Scrape the fatty marrow from huge white veal bones, and lather the greasy stuff on toast. To first timers, it might be a little squirm inducing. To Sandlin? “It’s God’s butter.”
For mere mortals, entrees like the tasty roast chicken ($28) will satisfy. The bird is brined in salt for days before roasting and served with the kind of garlicky butternut squash you wish was on your Thanksgiving table. It’s cooked like risotto and dressed with bacon, onion, garlic and thyme. The menu, which changes regularly, also offers smash burgers ($16), ribeye steaks ($38) and cassoulet ($28), a classic stew in the French countryside.
Portions are huge. Despite that, we managed to clear our plates and save room for dessert. Sandlin makes all her own ice cream -- and it’s a sweet accompaniment to dishes like the scratch-made biscuit with cooked pear, the kind of thing you wish you could save for breakfast the next day.
Memorable meals tell a story, giving you clues into the hearts and minds of the chefs in the kitchen. Over in Harbor East, Maximón from the Atlas Restaurant Group is telling a different narrative: one of a glamorous voyage through Latin American cuisine.
Located inside the Four Seasons Hotel, Maximón’s dining room stretches into a spacious waterfront patio. Just beyond, the Inner Harbor glistens in the early evening sunset. With palm trees and stucco walls, it looks like the type of place you’d expect to find James Bond between missions. Attractive heat lamps warm guests on chilly evenings. Only a handful of diners sat indoors.
Executive chef Colin King, who got his start in France and later worked for Washington’s José Andrés and Empellon in New York, approaches Latin cuisine with respect but not reverence, bringing his own twist to traditional techniques. Take, for example, the mushroom taco ($16). It’s served on a house-made corn tortilla -- with the corn shipped in weekly from Oaxaca, Mexico. The tortilla is a glorious canvas for locally grown and foraged mushrooms that have been smoked and roasted in brown butter. The result is meaty and smoky; “like bacon,” King says. We also loved the smoky seared foie gras ($24) served with a rich sweet and sour chamoy sauce. The sauce is delicious, but don’t try making this at home, folks. King ferments blueberry maple syrup with chipotle morita and habanada peppers, then purees the peppers into the sauce. The whole process takes about a week.
Hoping to sample as many things as possible, we ordered the $120 tasting menu. Though it was fun to indulge, in hindsight, I’d skip it and order a la carte. In a pandemic, who needs to spend three hours lingering over a restaurant meal, servers switching out your silverware every course?
Ordering the tasting menu also meant missing out on some of King’s appealing, family-style platters and other entrees. I had FOMO watching servers drop carnitas ($56) with eye-catching clouds of chicharrón, or pork rinds, to our fellow tables. King told me one of his favorite dishes on the menu is the lamb chops ($55), a loose tribute to Peruvian lomo saltado. That wasn’t on the tasting menu, either.
There were some mixups with courses and drinks during our meal. King, who was furloughed at the start of the pandemic, said the restaurant has decided to keep staffing levels lean to avoid laying people off when the chillier weather comes and fewer guests want to eat outside. Sound reasoning, but it means things need to get simplified.
Dessert ended things on a high note. We each got silky passion fruit flan with a dollop of tangy ginger yuzu sorbet — a delicate and pleasing combination. As if we still had room, we split the churros — crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.
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It was a wonderfully excessive finish to a daring meal. Walking back to my car in the Four Seasons parking lot, I felt for a moment like I’d been on vacation at some exotic locale. For one night, I had escaped 2020.