When eating is your job, dining out is always partly work, even when you're not doing it for the purpose of writing a review. There are worse ways to make a living.
The meals presented here are the 15 best I've had this year. They're a mix of review-dinners and some that I ate in my off hours. They were the best times I had in restaurants this year. Always, always the food mattered, but so did other things, like the company I was with and the score of the Orioles game.
A blow-out at Charleston
It helps sometimes, going in, to have a hypothesis. For a review dinner at Charleston, the Foreman Wolf flagship, it was this — the more you give, the more you'll get. This meant devoting the entire evening to dinner — reservations were for 5:30 p.m. — accepting the staff's counsel, and submitting to the restaurant's leisurely pace. When I left, a little after 9 p.m., the proof was in. If you let Charleston be Charleston, you'll be rewarded with the best dinner in the city.
First impressions at Cunningham's
Sometimes, before I visit a restaurant before a formal visit, I'll drop in to have a look around, gather up a few bites and gauge how long the restaurant will need before it's ready for a review. Three days after it opened, Cunningham's, a new restaurant from the Bagby Restaurant Group, was ready for its review. Located in the recently renovated Towson City Center, the restaurant is a full-on beauty. And the food we tried, appetizers mostly, were intriguing, fully considered and delicious. None of that "soft opening" or "we're working out the kinks." Cunningham's opened ready.
A traveling dinner in Fells Point
It was one of those Saturday nights when everyone was away or busy. That's the best, though, isn't it? Doing exactly as we please? I couldn't decide what would make me happier, dinner at Henninger's or at Peter's Inn. So I did both. Or rather, I had a seafood sampler at Henninger's bar and then walked over to Peter's and had a petit filet. And because this is Fells Point, a neighborhood full of talkers, I had good company, too.
A crab feast at Captain James Landing
I must have passed by this Canton crab house a thousand times before venturing in. Now it's my favorite place in Baltimore to get crabs. I only made it there once this past summer, for a birthday dinner, and it was one those magic nights, when it hits you how great Baltimore is. Captain James isn't quaint or adorable; it's just a pretty deck on the water's edge in the middle of the city, a few blocks away from a duckpin house.
The pleasure of discovery at Bottega
I think I had more positive response to my review of Bottega, a 20-or-so seat restaurant in Charles North, than to any other I filed this year. I know I enjoyed writing it. Bottega, for me, represented a crucial next step in Baltimore dining, when the principles underpinning the farm-to-table movement are taken for granted and raw ingredients are transformed into something different and special. It's a sweetheart of a restaurant, with a minuscule menu that changes by the week. I'll be back, often if I can manage it, but the first dinner here was a revelation.
An unsettling experience at the Other Corner Charcuterie Bar
One of the trickier reviews I had to write this year was for this new Hampden bar, a spinoff from the adjacent Corner BYOB. The problem was this: I loved the Other Corner from the moment I walked in, so much so that it felt personal. It hit me on an emotional level that I can only describe as deja vu. Had I been somewhere like the Other Corner before? I couldn't place it, though, and I began to think it might have been a place I had visited in my dreams or my imagination. The best I could do in the review was to admit this right away, and then get on with the particulars, like the best escargots I've ever had in Baltimore.
An ephemeral delight at Artifact Coffee
For a few months in the early part of the year, this daytime project from the owners of nearby Woodberry Kitchen was serving a very simple dinner. The menu, which would change every week, was take it or leave it: a single appetizer, main dish and dessert. One week, the main dish was a braised pork; the next it was a chicken stew, bathed in red wine. These were brought to the table in cast-iron pots, and you served yourself. It was all so lovely, and then, after a brief period when the menu expanded, the dinners stopped altogether. I hope they bring them back.
Taken by surprise at the Old Stein Inn
The Old Stein Inn is in Mayo, just outside Edgewater in Anne Arundel County. It's not a secret but it's not on the beaten path, either. The food here is outstanding. We had tender sauerbraten made from short ribs, a superior salad of watermelon and Black Forest ham, and juicy clams strips with a pretzel breading. Not every excursion pays off. But this one, on a hot summer Sunday, did. We couldn't wait to get back to tell people about it.
Feeling smart at Jack's Bistro
Every year, Jack's owners, Ted Stelzenmuller and Christie Smertycha, get on a plane and fly away, usually to Southeast Asia, which they adore. They come back refreshed and full of new ideas for the menu. This time, it was Malaysian laksa, a sweet-and-spicy noodle soup with shrimp and chicken, and a scorchingly spicy mussel salad with shallots, mint, lemon grass, red chiles and slices of jalapenos. The mussel salad was my favorite dish of the year, anywhere, and it made my feel smart for loving Jack's Bistro so much.
A random evening at The Food Market
The day darkens, and a text message pops up on your phone. "Dinner?" it asks. Of course, it's up to me to decide on the place. But where, where can we go that we know we'll be happy? No thinking tonight, please, and no learning. We're willing to spend a little bit of money but not a ton, and it would be nice to see some friendly faces, too. The Food Market it is. There's a wait for a seats at the bar but not too long. And before you know it, the food is in front of you. What was it this time? Fried oysters, a hamburger — I think someone got talked into Heath bar bread pudding. Does it matter? And when was this — April or October? It's hard to remember, except for the feeling that The Food Market is so popular because it gives people just what they want with grace and style.
A birthday dinner at Verde
I try not to dine out in large groups. Anything larger than six, and you're bound to have a picky eater, a contrarian or someone who just wishes that we'd all gone somewhere else. But Verde, which specializes in Neapolitan pizza but offers a full menu of rustic appetizers and pastas, turned out to be the exception. What helped so much was the graciousness of the staff, which has been inspired by the owners of this chic but warm Canton restaurant. A good time was had by all, even the vegans.
Going whole hog at Shin Chon Garden
I never rushed to get to Shin Chon Garden, even though people around here swore by the barbecue at this Ellicott City restaurant, where the meats are grilled at the table. I figured Shin Chon would be there when I got around to it. This year, I finally made it. The impetus was its inclusion on a TV travel show, one in which the host lost his mind over Shin Chon Garden's barbecue, proclaiming it some of the best he's had anywhere in the Unite States. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to point out what's plain. Shin Chon Garden is a treasure.
Finding a new favorite at Mekong Delta
Visit after visit to Mekong Delta, I'd get the pho. After all, I'd been waiting years for a good pho joint, so why bother with the other noodle dishes on the menu when I could have a big bowl of beefy noodle soup? Then one day, something made me ask about the Hu Tieu Tom Thit, which the menu says is a Southern-style Vietnamese noodle soup, with jumbo shrimp, barbecue pork, clear noodles and scallions in a sizzling broth. "Get it," said Luan Nguyen, the small cafe's owner. We did. So long, pho.
Dim sum frenzy at Asian Court
I get asked a lot if anyone serves dim sum. Asian Court on Baltimore National Pike does, on Saturday and Sunday. (Actually, they serve dim sum every day, but only on weekends do they serve dim sum on carts, which is a big part of the fun). I had loved my dinners and lunches at Asian Court, when I ordered from the regular menu, but dim sum made me dizzy and giddy, all in a good way — sesame buns, dumplings, so many different vegetables and, every now and then, tripe or feet.
A brothers' dinner at Aldo's
Back in the summer, at my suggestion, my two brothers and I met for dinner at Aldo's. I keep telling people that this is the Little Italy restaurant they should be going to, and everything I love about Aldo's — the big flavors, the smart service — was shining especially bright this night. I think it was the veal Milanese, one of those things Aldo's gets right every time, that clinched the deal for me. And for once, I actually looked like the smart one in the family.