Cooking With the Stars
Not Yet, But Ambience and Menu Elevate This Neighborhood Bar
As a neighborhood restaurant, Clayton’s Tavern looks to be making a pretty good go of things. As a reality-TV show, it would be a mammoth hit, and waitress/co-owner Amy Wright would be a breakout star. Amy makes the herbed cream cheese that Clayton’s serves with its basket of fresh bread. She makes the restaurant’s desserts, too, so mortified was she at the notion of importing mass-baked drivel. Supporting Amy at Clayton’s are her cast mates (whose names we missed), an owner/manager type who buys you a cocktail when you tell him the rest room is out of paper towels, and the chef, Tim Dyson, who visits tables with pleasantries, sometimes bearing homemade caraway cheese from his neighbor’s dairy farm.
Clayton’s takes over the old Sean Bolan’s spot in Federal Hill (one less Irish pub in town), about halfway between the Cross Street Market and Fort Avenue, which is to say off the beaten track. It looks like a number of other taverns in Baltimore, a little sweatier maybe, with one of those labored-over upstairs dining rooms that no one, unless they’re smoke-sensitive or cheating, seems to want to sit in. Too bad, it’s a good-looking room, with a nice play of crisp white linen against dark-wood walls. The prize table is downstairs, near the bathroom, away enough from the bar crowd to hold decent conversations while still soaking in its general good spirits.
The smallish menu, at first glance, is uninspiring—standard stuff such as chicken Marsala and chicken parmigiana, shrimp scampi, balsamic pork chop. But there’s an innovation worth noting and admiring. The chef offers daily changing preparations of salmon ($15.95) and rockfish ($16.50). That’s pretty nice for a neighborhood bar, and rockfish (or striped bass) is one of those fish that restaurants often botch up. At Clayton’s, the chef works with rockfish fillets, which, in his hands at least, offer up abundant sweetness and marvelously mellow texture. This night they were treated with a subtle blood-orange sauce and a glancing spike of Grand Marnier. Served with a pilaf of firm seasoned rice, it was really very tasty and made us think, Oh, this is rockfish.
Judging by a filet mignon Chesapeake special ($23.95), Clayton’s handles beef very well, too. Topped with a creamy crabmeat sauce, a rosy and sturdy filet was fired up hot so that its peppercorn-crusted exterior became nice and crackling, with nothing but tenderness underneath. The kitchen’s instincts about sides are right on—it actually does something to them, like peppering and salting new potatoes and roasting them until they’re crinkly on the skin and fluffy-hot underneath, and throwing heat on skinny asparagus spears so they arrive vivid green, snappy, and full of springtime flavor.
Lobster ravioli ($15.95) looked slightly out of place on Clayton’s menu, a needless attempt to fancy things up. And in spite of a full-bodied vodka-laced tomato sauce, the dish didn’t come off so well. The pasta pillows were toothy and good, but it was hard to find lobster flavor on the tongue—they may as well have been stuffed with cotton. The house-proud fried calamari appetizer ($8.95) performed similar black magic on the lowly squid. We couldn’t find its flavor, or texture, beneath a crispy, golden breading that was a little too heartily salted. Points added, though, for the lovely accompanying basil aioli and spicy marinara dips.
Even if it meant hiking up the price, a more generous application of the advertised hearts of palm and shallot “crispies” would have helped distinguish Clayton’s Austin salad (entrée sized, $9.95 with grilled chicken added), which otherwise sported a delightfully zingy ginger-sesame vinaigrette carefully coating pretty spring greens. No quibbles, though, with the steamed mussels ($9.95), every one open, nestled in a mop-uppable white-wine and garlic sauce flecked with finely chopped tomatoes.
Along with burgers and chicken sandwiches, Clayton’s menu offers a pint glass filled, so that it resembles a Guinness stout, with marinated steak, mushrooms, and onions, and topped with mashed potatoes—some other time.
And as this episode of Clayton’s closes, contented diners put their forks into Amy’s Key lime pie ($4.95), bottomed and crusted with crispy graham crackers, and bite into voluptuously satisfying creamy tanginess. They then attack a crackling-good custardy crème brûlée ($4.95) and nearly shout out as one, “Bring on the bread pudding with Jim Beam butterscotch sauce”—but don’t, because they know America’s watching.