Woodberry Kitchen owner Spike Gjerde
Tony Foreman, co-owner of Petit Louis and several other top restaurants in Baltimore
Baltimore's restaurant scene has certainly evolved considerably in the past decade. Growing up, a nice meal out usually meant either a trip to one of the formulaic, play it safe establishments in Little Italy, or perhaps another similarly Americanized 'ethnic' restaurant, or a splurge at one of the venerable steak houses. Then things became more high concept. Some Italian restaurants aspired towards greater authenticity, serving the likes of whole roasted branzini; one Greek restaurant in particular focused on similarly unadorned, fresh fish preparations, and then, of course, the tapas and small plates craze hit. More recently, it looks as though the local food phenomenon, spurred on by 'locivore' diners, restaurateurs, and the assorted farmers who provide these establishments with their produce, poultry, meat and dairy, has begun to take hold in the community. Two long-time Baltimore restaurateurs, Tony Foreman and Spike Gjerde, have worked through Baltimore's transformation into a more interesting dining town, and by chance I visited one of each of their restaurants this past week.
Let's begin with the larger ego first. Tony Foreman is Baltimore's undisputed Big Shot when it comes to restaurant empires. Along with his wife, chef Cindy Wolf, he owns Cinghiale, an Italian style osteria and wine bar, Pazo, a mediterranean themed small plates oriented restaurant an lounge, Charleston, the French influenced, southern tinged grand dame of the group, and Petit Louis, the classic French bistro in the heart of the tony enclave of Roland Park (if you only associate Baltimore with 'The Wire,' then Roland Park is the polar opposite of your image of the city). Anyway, I'm going to get right down to it and say that my lunch was a complete and utter disappointment. Frites were a little browner than usual (as per my mom's request, for them to be 'extra crispy') but still not hot and crisp. No sort of interesting aioli or other house made condiment served on the side, just a basic dijon mustard. I had ordered a classic frisse salad, with poached egg and lardons. The frissee was not fresh and swimming in an overly acidic, vinegary dressing which left a pool of liquid on the plate. Such a poor execution of a dish so simple does not make me optimistic as to the execution of other dishes on that particular afternoon. Bistro kitchens can and will have off days,though execution this lousy is truly tough to explain. The wine list provided the sole bright spot of the day. I had a glass of the characteristically tasty 2006 Francois Pinon Vouvray, and had I been in the mood for red I could have ordered the 2006 Chateau d'Oupia Minervois rouge. The bottle list is also excellent and far better than many a list in similar bistros in more cosmopolitan cities.
My experience at Spike Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen was a more positive one. The space, with its high ceilings, worn brick walls, stencils on blackboard menu and stylish casual ambience, suggested a buzzing, successful, quietly confident young restaurant. Local farms which provide Woodberry Kitchen their products are mentioned on the menu, an endearing, easy to read menu at that, with clever, witty flourishes throughout. One example is the 'filtered Baltimore wooder,' a play on how we Baltimoreans pronounce water (and Philadelphians as well, I think, want to weigh in DMcD?) As my parents don't eat oysters but my grandma and I do, we split half a dozen which were a perfect start made even more perfect with a bottle of 2007 Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet. I'm not sure if it's a separate bottling from their Hermine d'or - it certainly seemed a little less weighty and mineral than how I remembered it. Maybe Jo Landron bottles a separate Muscadet for certain importers. Next I had a salad of various local radishes and savory bread pudding. On paper, it seemed like the contrasting flavors and textures would make for an interesting dish, but instead what I got were two things that should probably not be eaten together. For a main course I ordered a roasted chicken with a cider pan glaze, kale and a really tasty side of spaghetti squashed with melted cheese - a terrific combo of subtly sweet squash and rich melted cheese. We drank a bottle of '05 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc Barriques, which was richly textured, not really overoaked but definitely lacking a bit of chi. It went ok with the food, complementing the richness of the squash and not enhancing or detracting from the flavor of the chicken. Portions here are more than ample - I arrived fairly hungry and left very full. Judging by the strong Thursday night crowd and the overall strength of the restaurant, it looks like Spike has got a winner on his hands here.
Despite my not so great meal at Petit Louis, I can certainly vouch for Tony Foreman's other restaurants, which are all based on creative concepts, well executed by talented kitchens and enhanced by what is consistently some of the sharpest service around. He along with Spike Gjerde and others have undoubtedly raised the bar considerably for Baltimore restaurants.