Local, Organic, Sustainable Fare Served Up With Flavor And Style
Spike Gjerde's new farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, a partnership with Amy Gjerde and Nelson Carey, is now open. And the only question is, when will it be safe to go? It's truly a mob scene. Everybody wants in, and for good reason: It's the right restaurant at the right time, riding a wave of our fascination with, or at least gullibility for, such themes as seasonability, sustainability, and localness. Other area restaurants have paved this principled path--Taste, Dogwood Restaurant, Chameleon Café--but Woodberry Kitchen is the most alluring synthesis yet of the noble-eating method.
Carved out of an old foundry space in Clipper Mill, Woodberry Kitchen is a fantasy of wood, crumbly brick, glass, and fire. The crowd might be from Roland Park, but here they look like movie stars who've rode up on their hybrids, bathed in the forgiving lights of Gordon Willis' cinematography.
If Woodberry Kitchen took what felt like forever to open, there is compelling evidence that the pre-opening time was well spent. The midcentury marvelous "specials board" that hangs over the open kitchen, the titanic firewood tower, and the warm metal surfaces of the bar and tables all speak the same language as the menu, which is talking up a storm.
Woodberry Kitchen allows for multiple methods of dining. Not a revelation, it just seems to work better, more naturally, here. Diners can spend an evening at the bar--or a table--with, say, a single malt or a regionally brewed beer, a scattering of hot and cold small plates, maybe throw in a flatbread pizza or a hamburger, and call it a night. Or, they can proceed through a conventional course-based meal from popcorn to a killer cappuccino or French-press Irish coffee with espresso whipped cream. We're loving that Woodberry dedicates one staff member each night to barista duty.
Either way, diners should start off with a snack. A bowl of Eastern Shore popcorn ($1), dressed up with butter and sea salt, is a contender for menu item of the year (think of last year's Brussels sprouts); the fried hominy ($3), little balls of minute flavor that diners spear into chile mayonnaise; or a jarful of pickled vegetables ($3) give the evening a folksy start. Weirdly, it feels in earnest.
Pause for oysters, served either on the half shell with classic mignonette and cocktail sauces, Rockefeller, or, even better, roasted ($13) in a wood oven and topped with almost too much, if such a thing is possible, bacon and chive butter. It's easy to go right with warm and cold small plates. Absolutely don't miss the "carrots with their tops" ($7), in which sliced carrots are presented simmering in a wine and maple-laced purée made from carrot greens; aromatic lamb meatballs ($9), tossed with fried sage in a fresh red-pepper sauce; roasted sage sausage ($9), mixed up with garlic and shell beans, and garnished with plum mustard; or heads-on shrimp with homemade spoon bread in pan sauce ($10). And you really have to sample the creamy chicken liver parfait ($9) served with a layer of separated fat on top, to be splayed onto sourdough toasts.
The entrées, listed quaintly as "suppers," are simple fare that evoke an Arcadia of farmhouse dinners--a cider-brined pork chop ($21); a seafood stew ($28); a cast-iron roasted chicken ($23) with chard and grits, simmering in pan sauce, wanting just a pinch more salt; and a well-marbled rib-eye with a scalloped potato gratin ($29). These are intended as everyday choices, and end up inspiring not so much awe as respect. For drama, there is the occasional flabbergasting special. A magnificent beast of a whole black sea bass ($29) arrives with its blackened skin crispy, the flesh beneath bone white and tender, accompanied by a surprisingly thick salsa verde.
The denim-clad staff is on track, obviously proud to be there, but because Woodberry Kitchen is the kind of instant hit that comes along about every other year, there's evidence of shell shock. Let all bartenders, here and everywhere, promise to greet customers with "Good evening" and not "Can I get something for you?" It'd be a good idea, too, for all on staff to be called in a half-hour earlier. There's too much prep work still being performed as the early reservations are showing up. Customers shouldn't feel like they're imposing. Speaking of early reservations, it might be all you can get, if you can get one at all. And don't show up without one until maybe mid-February, but who knows, it could stay mobbed forever.