In 2009, B&O American Brasserie at Kimpton Hotel Monaco was the town darling. It opened amid great fanfare in the former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad headquarters, offering impressive New American cuisine in a swanky historic building.
It hasn't lost its swagger with a lively bar — headed by Brendan Dorr, one of Baltimore's premier cocktail authorities — and an upper-level dining room that recently went through a makeover.
"We wanted to move from a classical look to a more contemporary feel," said general manager James Williams.
The orange-and-burgundy color scheme and oversized seating of the past were traded for a sophisticated black-and-gray decor to modernize the upstairs.
The kitchen, though, has always been in flux. From the restaurant's start, chefs have come and gone faster than holiday cookies.
The newest kitchen leader is Scott Hines, who took over in September. But Hines isn't starting from scratch. He was B&O's executive sous chef under former executive chef Mike Ransom and had been the acting chef since May.
Like an artist putting his own signature touches on a painting, Hines is making his imprint on the restaurant with a new menu introduced last month.
It's surprisingly succinct, with four starters, seven entrees, a soup, a couple of salads and some dishes from the restaurant's brick oven.
Don't be deceived by its brevity. Hines is turning out stellar dishes.
The Chesapeake crab salad was a delicate wonder. Fresh greens are nested in two Belgian endive leaves with avocado, hearts of palm and lumps of crab with a subtle Caesar dressing.
Another appetizer, the roasted baby beets, paired miniature rounds of the root vegetable with crispy coins of goat cheese, mache and pistachios in a champagne vinaigrette.
The cider-braised pork cheeks were sensational, sitting sat atop a polenta mousse and served with cardamom pickled carrot ribbons.
One of our favorite starters was the blistered shishito peppers prepared in the brick oven. The slightly charred, addictive peppers were enhanced with a ponzu-soy sauce. We could have done without the bonito flakes topping them. It added a distracting fishy taste.
If you're not nursing one of Dorr's cocktails — do try the Queen Bee with vodka, yuzu and elderflower and honey syrup — there are plenty of beers and wines. One of our guests brought a bottle of wine to the restaurant. (There's a $20 corkage fee.) Our waitress took this extra duty in stride, decanting it and filling glasses when needed.
She didn't miss a beat with our meal service either, making a pleasant meal even more delightful with her affable demeanor.
We also adored the curried acorn squash. The tender squash flourished with curry, raisins, confit mushrooms, French lentils and kale crisps.
Pastry chef Nicole Rutter has been whipping up impressive desserts at B&O for two years. We're hoping she sticks around for several more.
The lemon bar was light years away from the kind you find at local bake sales. This fantastic block had a crunchy white-chocolate pastry base, was glazed with a berry gelee and accompanied by balls of toasted meringue, vanilla ice cream and lemon brittle.
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The two meringue cookies were served with a cup of spiced hot cider. We thought it was for drinking until our waitress explained the drink was a dip for the dessert.
After dinner, we were filled with good food and cheer — until we went to retrieve our car from the restaurant's valet service. We were two minutes past the maximum two-hour time limit when the price jumps from $7 to $28.
When we later asked Williams about the hefty increase, he apologized and explained that the restaurant has no control over the third-party service. He suggested diners take advantage of street parking or nearby lots if they plan to stay longer than two hours.