Oh My Darling
Clementine a Welcome Addition to Hamilton
When Clementine opened in Hamilton I was excited: A smart yet unpretentious little restaurant is just what this area needed, and Clementine seemed likely to fit that bill. Chef/owner Winston Blick ran the kitchen at Federal Hill's SoBo Café for the past 10 years before leaving to launch his own eatery on that model, intelligent but fun food, well-priced, in a comfortable neighborhood atmosphere.
Not to spoil the surprise--do read on--but Clementine more than lives up to expectation. The attractively low-key dining room is distinguished, yet fits in among prosaic neighboring businesses like Family Dollar and a pawnshop; the menu is clever but not conceited. There is a comfortable sitting area up front, with sofas and a kids' play zone (thank you, Jesus!), all of which make for a very pleasant neighborhood hangout experience.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, Clementine serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen shines most at dinner. Breakfast seems to be mostly about baked goods, bagels with creative in-house cream cheese spreads, and breakfast-y casseroles, while lunch leans heavily on soups and innovative sandwiches. Prices are insanely reasonable (so be sure to tip hugely).
Bridging lunch and dinner is Clementine's signature Fantastical Mac N Cheese ($4.50), a hearty and flavorful rendition Blick wisely brought with him from SoBo. It's savory and rich, but chunks of tomato leaven the velvety, custardy cheese and pasta concoction. It's a tad heavy for summer in Baltimore, which leads me to my one nit to pick about the menu: Although it changes daily, supposedly to reflect the best ingredients available, many of the recurring selections--among them a meat loaf platter ($15) and grilled pork chop ($18)--are just kind of more massive than you might be up to handling on a steamy July evening. I mean, yeah, the cheddar mashed potatoes that accompany many of the meatier plates are terrific, but call me in October when this sort of food feels right for the season.
Better for the current weather is the "airline" chicken breast ($16); the name is a humorous reference to the wing left on the breast. The chicken has been brined, a process that left it marvelously moist, though it was difficult to detect the roasted basil seasoning. It was presented simply atop roasted sweet potato slices, but a skillfully executed, barely sweet cream sauce flavored with cardamom and ginger provided ample intrigue. Green beans served cold on the side were described as "lemon apple pickled" but really just tasted like green beans, though the scattered toasted pistachios were nice.
The house-made charcuterie plate ($12) would make a pleasant cold summer supper. The standout by far was a sausage made from roughly chopped pork and wild mushrooms and flavored with Chianti. It was simply delicious, and worked beautifully with the bread and butter pickles made from the chef's grandmother's recipe. (A word to the wise: If anything is described as being from the chef's family, by all means order it. The best things we tried throughout the evening all seemed to connect back to Blick's grandmother or her recipes.) The duck liver pâté was lasciviously smooth and rich, which paired nicely with a dab of zingy tomato-ginger marmalade. The shrimp and crab pâté was fine if not as interesting, as was its cocktail sauce accompaniment.
The Chinese five-spice marinated and grilled pork tenderloin ($15) was a lot of meat. Served on a mound of brown rice, the pork was marvelously tender, though I would have liked more chile-scented black bean sauce than the small drizzle ours received. Chilled sesame asparagus lightened things up.
I really appreciate that all Clementine's meats and poultry are hormone-free. They also have names--it's not just pork and beef; it's Duroc pork and Vande Rose beef. The hostess stopped by the table to tell us how they tasted offerings from many different producers before selecting based on best flavor. Indeed, the grilled Vande Rose Baltimore strip ($20) was flavorful and, even though it came cooked slightly past order (I have heard this is a bit of a recurring problem here, so you might want to order rare if you're after medium rare), reasonably tender. A little of the roasted shallot, thyme, and peppercorn "jam" went a long way, though--its shrillness added nothing to the steak, though the voluptuous cheddar mashed potatoes were sheer heaven. A side of sautéed mixed vegetables was, given Clementine's overall attention to detail, surprisingly bland and mushy.
The chef's mom makes the desserts, and I adored her rendition of coconut cake ($6). The coconut-studded icing, gritty with sugar, overlaid a terrific, moist coconut-laced cake, and it was a pleasure to sip locally roasted Zeke's coffee ($1.50) along with. Other tasty beverages at Clementine include the house-made lemonade and basil-lime elixir (both $2.25), though that's pretty much all there is to drink until the liquor license comes through. For $5 per table, however, Clementine's staff cheerfully sets up glasses, ice buckets, and whatever else is needed to get your drink on.
Speaking of staff, the well-informed, bustling, and friendly servers were a highlight of this visit and what I am sure will be many more in the future. Welcome, Clementine.