For a 6-year-old restaurant, Bluegrass in South Baltimore has been through a lot of chef and menu changes. Now, it has a new owner.
We were happy to find that the decor hasn't changed, and the place is still a popular neighborhood gathering spot. But we had one of the most uneven meals we've had in a long time.
Chef Will Sterling, who runs Saturday Morning Cafe downtown, took over Bluegrass' operation this summer. Initially, he planned to rename it after his other restaurant.
Sterling decided to stick with Bluegrass, though dropping the "Tavern" part of the name.
"We are keeping the name after a long discussion with family, staff [and] community," he said in an email. "We just love it."
Bluegrass has had a Southern-inspired menu from day one. Each of its previous chefs, from Patrick Morrow to Timothy Dyson, has put his own spin on the theme, from offering meats like rabbit and antelope to weaving in a French twist.
The new Bluegrass menu tends toward Alabama-infused fare under the guidance of executive chef Antonio Rice. Sterling was inspired by the state's food when he served as an Army Ranger there before coming to Baltimore.
You'll find straightforward Southern dishes like shrimp and grits, smoked fried chicken and crawfish mac and cheese. Bourbons and ryes still rule here, and can be sampled alone or in several creative cocktails. Beers on draft include selections from local brewers like Flying Dog and The Brewer's Art.
Oenophiles will find only a dozen wines. But on Wednesdays, flights, featuring five 3-ounce tastings for $5, are offered.
The two-level corner restaurant has an easygoing vibe with a great staff whether you sit at the bars or in the dining rooms on the first or second floors.
There's one problem that hasn't changed over the years. The kitchen is in the basement, and getting food to the second floor while it's hot is an issue.
We had that problem on our first visit in 2010 and again recently. But our waitress and the restaurant manager were so enthusiastic and lovely that we tried to be forgiving.
It was difficult at times.
The warm, oozy Creole crab and artichoke dip was outstanding, and the crispy fried artichoke perched on top was masterful. But instead of the toasted bread promised on the menu, we received stale tortilla chips as dippers.
We liked over the addictive molasses butter the came with the sweet-potato cornbread presented in a cast-iron skillet. It's too bad the round of bread was dry and had cooled in the pan.
The deviled eggs looked splendid, but the fried oysters adorning each one had more crunchy coating than bivalve. They were listed under the menu's shareable category, but we got three for a table of four; it's a slippery food to cut in half. And the $10 price tag seemed steep.
Our meal perked up with our entrees, though there were miscues. The blackened catfish jambalaya was terrific with seared fish, andouille sausage, shrimp and spinach in a spicy tomato vegetable broth atop a saffron risotto.
The shrimp and grits were delicious. They were doctored with andouille sausage, sweet peppers, onions and a flavorful gumbo gravy. But we wished the kitchen hadn't skimped on the grits.
We would have really liked the smoked fried chicken if it had been delivered straight from the skillet. By the time we saw it, the country gravy had congealed on the chicken nestled next to temperate mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
The braised beef short rib was a mostly successful plate with fall-off-the-bone meat, baby heirloom carrots (which could have been cooked a bit more), whole okra, sauteed spinach and excellent jalapeno cheddar grits.
Desserts were mediocre. The cheesecake had a thick crust and bland filling that was boosted by a drizzle of raspberry coulis. But there were no fresh berries, as the menu had indicated.
The beignets took a detour from their New Orleans roots. These fried fritters were dense and smothered in too much powdered sugar. A chocolate sauce helped to alleviate the dish's doughy heaviness.
The meal didn't wow us. But we have a feeling if the kitchen can figure out how to get the food to the table while it's hot and include the ingredients listed on the menu, Sterling could have a hit on his hands.