Playing a New Tune
Changes At Abacrombie Making For A More Harmonious Dining Experience
Open for dinner Wednesdays through Saturday and for brunch Sunday.
The eventful narrative of the subterranean dining room once known as Society Hill and Grille 58, but more recently as Abacrombie Fine Food and Accommodations (58 W. Biddle St.,  837-3630), continues. Abacrombie was sold last year, ending the brief tenure of chef Michael Putnam, who took over the kitchen in January 2007 from well-remembered Sonny Sweetman upon that hot chef's departure for Austria. Abacrombie has now reopened with a new team that has made it once again safe for cultural district diners to go below ground.
The new team includes Jerry Pellegrino, of Corks restaurant and WYPR's "Radio Kitchen," in the role of producer and part owner; Greta Clausen, as general manager; and Jesse Sandlin, as executive chef. The place feels more relaxed and happier with these people running it, and Abacrombie now feels less like a temple than a place where people can go to have a nice dinner. The menu is bigger, from four appetizers to seven and from six entrées to seven. It doesn't sound like much, but it does signal a psychological shift in power from the kitchen to the table.
Sandlin's first menu, a winter fest of meat, roots, and dark greens, is strong and straightforward, accessible with glances of drama. Every word, every preparation is recognizable to the everyday restaurant diner, and the focus appears to have shifted, as it has across the street at the Meyerhoff, away from Europe to America. It is as if Abacrombie has taken on the personality of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's conductor--the restaurant, like the symphony, is now a woman's domain; besides Sandlin and Clausen, who has a smooth and gracious way of superintending the dining room, the new team includes sous-chef Jackie Torres and pastry chef Sarah Acconcia.
Beef cheeks ($26) are listed first among the entrées, an announcement of intent. Sandlin braises them to a buttery tenderness in vanilla and red wine (only a hint of vanilla survives, more as aroma than anything) and serves them with wilted chard and a sweet potato purée, a mix of clear, robust, and sharp flavors, with a nice play between sinewy and smooth textures. Listed just below is another experiment in richness--duck two ways ($30), served as both an outstandingly handled confit and as seared slices of breast with a mash of celeriac and parsnip. The leg's crispy saltiness contrasts the melt-away texture and pepperiness of the breast.
A superb grilled pork chop ($26), with gentle acidic flavoring, sided with a potato purée, homemade applesauce, and buttermilk fried onion rings; and a cast-iron bistro steak ($32), charred on the outside, pink inside, touched with dollops of blue cheese butter, and served with a pretty gratin of root vegetables and haricots vert, offer more good and hearty eating.
There are menu concessions to fish-eaters--a cornmeal-encrusted and pan-fried pompano ($26) and a grilled tuna salad--and to vegetarians: a wild mushroom lasagna ($24). There are also lovely starters--especially the warm spinach salad with bacon vinaigrette and roasted fingerling potatoes ($8), a mellow bacon-garnished split-pea soup ($6), and a chilled shrimp cocktail with jumbo head-on prawns ($12). And a big finish--first, a beautifully curated cheese plate (Clausen is a former fromagier) and, then, a "breakfast for dessert" brioche ($8) with maple star-anise chantilly and bacon toffee.
As before, it is best to avoid Abacrombie, at least on your first visit, during the hectic pre-symphony rush. Either make your starting time after 8 p.m. or visit on a night when the cultural attractions are dark. We did this and had the dining room mostly to ourselves. It's one of the few rooms in town that still feels warm without other people in it, at least partly because the staff is so attentive and welcoming without being fussy. Sunday brunch runs until 7 p.m. here and is already said to be a favorite of service-industry types looking for a good toad in the hole.