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LEAN TIMES, RICH DISHES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If dining out has a season, it would be around the holidays. If there's a time when Baltimoreans will be saying, to heck with the recession, let's have an office lunch, get together with old friends at a nice restaurant or celebrate by dining out, it will be between now and Jan. 1.

If you only consider the number of closings - and there have been a lot of them - it hasn't been a good year for area restaurants. But it hasn't all been bad news.

Looking back over the restaurants I reviewed this year, I'm struck by how many of them were newly opened - in spite of the recession. Restaurateurs must be the most optimistic breed ever. Before I checked, I would have said that many new places were either steakhouses or southern Italian places because those are the safe, comfortable restaurants to be opening these days. But that wasn't true.

I started the year with a review of the new Abbey Burger Bistro in Federal Hill, and along the way enjoyed eating duck confit with cabbage and fennel cooked in cream at Brasserie 10 South downtown (already closed, unfortunately), fabulous fried oysters with a barbecue sauce made in house at Restaurant Sabor in Lutherville, baby eggplants stuffed with Gorgonzola, peppers and chestnuts at Taverna Corvino in Federal Hill, a juicy New York strip at Sullivan's Steakhouse downtown, mussels in a red curry-coconut milk sauce at Frank & Nic's West End Grille near the stadiums, a dreamy risotto studded with porcini mushrooms at La Famiglia near Johns Hopkins University and excellent seafood and tropical fruit ceviche at Talara in Harbor East. And those were just the highlights of the first half of the year, and only so far as new places were concerned.

It was a good year for me personally as a restaurant critic because I reviewed not one but two restaurants that had four-star food. And the year's not over yet. (In the past I've sometimes gone several years without having a four-star.)

One was an old standby, the Prime Rib, where I've eaten before but never had such a fine experience as I did this time. I'm guessing folks will be willing to pay a lot for a traditional steak dinner if it's done this well, even in a recession.

The other just-about-perfect dinner was created by chef Christian deLutis at Alizee in the Inn at the Colonnade. The food is American, but with a pronounced French accent. The service was a bit iffy when I was there, though, so take that into consideration when you plan your holiday party.

Most of these new restaurants are paying at least lip service to what I think of as the Phrase of the Year: farm-to-table. It took over from 2008's "locavore." The two ideas are much the same, promising food that is local, seasonal and fresh; but "farm-to-table" feels more comforting, cozier and less high-falutin' - all traits we seem to need in our restaurants these days.

I realized this trend was here to stay when I got a press release recently from the Radisson Cross Keys Hotel that its nice little restaurant, the Crossroads, was announcing - ta da! - a new "farm-to-table" menu.

But the Trend of the Year has to be deals. Restaurant consultants can say that today's consumers are looking for value and not deals, but it seems to me they are looking for value and deals. And deals they got in 2009. I started running a regular feature this year in my Table Talk column called Deal of the Week, and I have never had trouble finding one.

It seems as if every restaurant is offering a half-price bottle of wine night or a pasta for $10 night or some sort of special to lure customers in during the week. If you're willing to sit in the bar and don't want a full meal, you can get some excellent deals on food. There's also been an upswing in free-food offerings at happy hour to get people in who will spend money on drinks.

Some restaurants tried to change with the times beyond just offering a good deal. Last year Jerry Pellegrino's Corks in Federal Hill reinvented itself successfully as a more casual, fun (and less expensive) place to eat; Bicycle tried the same thing this year and failed. Although it closed, the owners have just opened their new casual Italian/New American restaurant, Ullswater, in south Baltimore.

(By the way, if you're a Jerry Pellegrino fan, you can now find him at Abacrombie near the Meyerhoff, where he's taken over from chef Jesse Sandlin.)

I don't want to suggest that customers are only looking for great deals when they go out to eat. Restaurant owners who can show that they offer a fabulous dining experience can still practically write their own ticket.

The hardest table to get recently has been at Volt in Frederick, where diners can expect to pay $75 or so a person. This is the high-end restaurant whose chef/owner, Bryan Voltaggio, has become a star on the Bravo reality show "Top Chef." Baltimoreans seem happy to travel for an hour, and hand over their credit cards, for an ultimate, if expensive, dining experience.

The second-hardest reservation to get on a Saturday night would probably be Woodberry Kitchen in Hampden/Woodberry, proving that Baltimoreans are willing to pay well for fresh, local, imaginative cuisine in an eco-friendly environment - as long as it has a lot of style.

However, the faltering economy has resurrected the tapas and small-plates craze. The aforementioned Talara is a tapas bar as well as a ceviche bar. Tapas Adela opened last week in Fells Point, the latest member of the Kali's Restaurant Group. Miguel's, with Spanish-style tapas, is scheduled to open in Silo Point Condominiums.

The charming Pairings in Harford County, which pairs wine with (mostly) small plates, is one of the area's most successful new restaurants. Bistro Blanc, a relatively new restaurant in Glenelg, has Marc Dixon of Iron Bridge Wine Co. fame turning out small plates that go particularly well with wine.

What's different about the tapas bars and small-plate restaurants this time round is that wine is such an important part of the equation. In fact, both Pairings and Bistro Blanc (and Taverna Corvino) can be considered wine bars. I hereby nominate wine bars with good food the Restaurant Type of the Year, with the most notable openings besides those mentioned being Pure Wine Bar in Ellicott City and 13.5 % Wine Bar in Hampden.

All in all, it's been a much more exciting year insofar as Baltimore's dining scene is concerned than I ever thought it would be when the year began. At the end of 2008, I was writing mostly about restaurant closings and wringing my hands over the dreary economic forecast. This year, we've had plenty of closings, but we've also had a lot of good new restaurants opening up. Places such as the new B&O; American Brasserie downtown and Blue Hill Tavern in Brewers Hill, which were a bit uneven when I reviewed them, still demonstrated enormous talent in the kitchen and the ability to turn out exciting food.

How bad can things be when diners have so many interesting new places to choose from?

Inside

Elizabeth Large's dining highs (and one low) of 2009 Pg 2

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