The More Things Change
Ever-Changing Menu at Peter's Inn Always Pleases
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Roughly translated: yes, there's a new byline and new name to this column, but although my surname does not begin with "G," the sensibility of Michelle Gienow and Richard Gorelick, the gifted and perceptive writers who wrote this column previously, lingers on in Free Range. From the perspective of this native Baltimorean who returned to the city in 2001 after nearly a decade-long absence, the notion of change (and not changing) in reference to the Baltimore restaurant scene seems particularly apt. Which is why I've opted to begin my tenure with Peter's Inn (504 S. Ann St.,  675-7313), a restaurant whose menu is in constant flux but nonetheless remains a Fells Point treasure.
Like the old TJ Maxx jingle, Peter's is never the same place twice. The chalkboard menu changes regularly (though you can usually count on the seven-ounce fillet or 13-ounce New York strip). Stereo selections range from classic country to Dick Dale (sometimes in the same evening), and if your date is a bore, you can watch the crowd at the bar: hipsters in gray ponytails and indoor sunglasses slurping martinis and discussing Leonard Cohen, a guy in a white cowboy hat sipping rosé, a pair of white-slacked and silver-sandaled blondes and their inexplicably barking buddy.
With its ad hoc collection of bowling and golf trophies, a working Ballantines clock, and the requisite nod to wildlife in the form of three mounted racks of horns, a stuffed black rooster, and a marlin decorated in Christmas lights, Peter's still has the feel of a Baltimore basement complete with bar (though I suppose most home powder rooms are not as well stocked with toiletries as this ladies room is). Gone, however, is the backroom sofa. And that's just as well. Frankly it was more fun to say that you ate there than it was to actually lean over the coffee table to eat your dinner.
Of course, none of this Charm City charm matters if the food (and drink) isn't very good, and at Peter's it is. Few restaurants in Baltimore have such a carefully honed, reasonably priced wine list with as much breadth and depth, even by the glass. Where else are you going to find a Zweigelt, a Cahors, an exquisite Pinot Noir made by Oregonian Lynn Penner-Ash, and still be able to order an Oliver's Iron Man Pale Ale and a Plymouth on the rocks for the non-wine drinkers at the table?
The food shows this same careful attention. Although salad and garlic bread no longer come with entrées, two seasonal salads appeared on the menu the night we dined. In the Maryland tomato and (Iowa) Maytag blue cheese salad, East Coast married Midwest in simple, straightforward style--a sprinkling of cheese, a balanced vinaigrette, ripe tomatoes. The other salad, mix of local radishes, cucumber, mint, and hearts of palm dressed with pumpkin-seed oil, was a bit racier with the mint and watery cukes a cool foil for crunchy heat of the radishes (though the hearts of palm seemed slightly lost in the mix). Both salads were ample enough to share, and prices reflected this ($10.50 for the tomatoes; $7.50 for the radishes).
Peter's fillet ($22.50), its slight crust concealing tender pinkness within, never fails to satisfy, and for those who like their mashed potatoes to resemble soft-serve ice cream, the accompanying spuds come as perfectly whipped spirals. I like my potatoes a little chunkier and more substantial, but so be it. Of course, we knew that the lobster knuckle sandwich ($16.50) was not, um, lobster knuckles, but some of the generous chunks of lobster were large enough to cover a small fist. Dressed lightly in mayo and tucked into a crisp roll with sweet potatoes sautéed in bacon, this was the essence of summer. Our favorite dish, Portuguese-style mussels ($15.50) with clams, chorizo, kale, and tomato, also had small chunks of potatoes and a sprinkling of chickpeas that were pleasantly firm enough to suggest they had not come from a can. An entire baguette still wouldn't have been enough to soak up the savory, almost unctuous broth at the bottom of the bowl. Only the veal scallopine ($17.50) with wilted spinach disappointed. The light breading was soggy rather than crisp. And though the menu promised lemon beurre blanc, the result was more akin to saltimbocca, with ham and cheese blanketing the medallions, making the whole dish feel heavy.
In years past, the restaurant didn't serve dessert. I'm glad that's changed, even if there's only one choice. And if you're lucky, that choice is chocolate pots de crème ($7.50), so rich with cream and egg yolks and bittersweet chocolate, it's nearly solid.
Like any good "inn," Peter's melds hospitality with an attention to detail, from suspending slim columns of watermelon in water carafes to serving silverware in baguette bags. If you haven't been in a while, go. Space might be tight, but it's always worth it to wait for room at this inn. Welcome.