Every year I single out a few highs and lows of my restaurant reviewing. Remember, these apply only to restaurants I wrote about in 2009, so please keep that in mind before you complain about my choices:
Best Cutting-Edge Restaurant Experience: : Volt in Frederick lives up to the hype, and that's not easy to do. There were a few missteps when I ate there, but the modern American food at Chef Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant is imaginative, fun, looks good and for the most part tastes great, from the chef's amuse to the complimentary pastries that come with your check. The service is formal - except that the waiters wear brown-and-white Chuck Taylors. The setting is a startlingly contemporary interior for the late-19th-century brick mansion. It's impossible to get a table on the weekend unless you call weeks in advance. What's not to like?
Best Old-School Restaurant Experience: : The Prime Rib in downtown Baltimore has long been the city's go-to place for a special occasion. But it hasn't always been worth the hefty price tag once you got past the superb prime beef. No longer. When I reviewed it earlier this year, I rhapsodized as much about the creamed spinach as the flavorful, well-marbled meat. I still dream about the oysters, and the fish was as good as the prime rib and the lamb. Couple that with attentive service, a fine wine list, and a suave supper club atmosphere (admittedly a little dated), and you've got yourself a winner.
Best New Chef: : Not every dish that came out of E. Michael Reidt's kitchen at the new B&O; American Brasserie downtown was perfect. But Reidt, an import from California, produces inventive food that demands admiration. It's somewhat casual, a mix of trendy ingredients and fine-dining presentation with more rustic dishes such as pot pie and braised meatballs. When he had his own fine-dining restaurant on the West Coast, Food & Wine magazine named him one of the nation's "Best New Chefs." It's hard not to agree.
Best Old Chef: : No, I don't mean literally old. Christian deLutis has been around Baltimore a while. He's cooked in the kitchens of the Wine Market in Locust Point, the now-closed Brasserie Tatin, and Dogwood in Hampden (which may reopen in December). But he's never made as much of an impression on me as he did when I ate at Alizee in the Inn at the Colonnade. DeLutis took over a restaurant that was foundering; and will, I hope, stay long enough to get it on its feet for good. His food has both traditional French accents and trendy ingredients and techniques. Most important, it tastes very, very good.
Desserts to Die For: : The food was inconsistent - some of it great - when I ate at the Blue Hill Tavern in Brewers Hill. But nothing negative could be said about the desserts produced by pastry chef Bettina Clair. The chocolate silk pie, the peanut butter cup with a cloud of meringue, the brioche bread pudding with caramel and apples were all so good they ought to be illegal.
Recession-Proof Restaurant of the Year: : Peter's Inn in Fells Point is a bar. Nothing more and nothing else. It also offers some fine gourmet comfort food - if you can snag one of the tables. (Otherwise, eat at the bar.) Take a look at the Web site for the short menu, which changes weekly. Only in Baltimore would you find a former biker bar that serves osso buco and pots de creme.
Weird Restaurant of the Year: : You knew it had to be in the American Visionary Art Museum, didn't you? Mr. Rain's Fun House has just opened where Joy America was, offering offbeat American food such as purple yam soup and "prawns & pheasant" that just happens to be getting great word of mouth. (It hasn't been open long enough for me to review it yet.)
Best Reinvention of an Old Space: : I didn't think the Carlyle Club, a handsome Lebanese restaurant near the Johns Hopkins University, would ever reopen after it "closed for renovations" because of a water leak. But it did, as an even better looking restaurant offering coastal Indian cuisine. That's a broad description, but what it seems to mean is lighter dishes and more seafood than you usually find in an Indian restaurant. Be sure to try one of the six varieties of dosa.
Best Move to a New Space: : I was fond of the old Cafe Troia in Towson, but I admire the spunk it took in this economy to pick up and move across the street - to snazzy new quarters and a much larger space. However, I have to give this award to another branch of the family. Gino Troia moved his tiny Hampden pasta bar, Grano, to new quarters a few blocks away where Finnertea's used to be. It's a charming space and means the menu can expand a little and more customers can find a seat.
Noisiest Restaurant of the Year: : Grano in Hampden may be charming, but its popularity means that every table is usually taken. The dining room is tiny, there's hardly a scrap of fabric in it, and - wow - is it loud. What? I can't hear you. And my head hurts.
Quietest Restaurant That Isn't About to Go Out of Business: : No winner in this category.