A Swell Joint
A Canton bar offers pleasing food, but fails to wow
"I'm off to the gin mill," a friend's father used to say before he took off for the corner pub, where he would get a pint and a bite to eat. Baltimore still has its fair share of gin mills and at least one Gin Mill, the Canton pub that remade itself last year as a classic neighborhood joint with a modern menu.
Like any modern day gin mill, the Gin Mill has televisions, a music soundtrack, and chicken wings, and while neither the four screens nor the classic rock distinguish it from other joints around town, some of the food, as well as the friendly staff, does. Or, in other words, when a bar has a staff that greets and seats you with warmth and without attitude, is happy to reel off all the offerings on the beer list, and lets you take your time in ordering, you can be somewhat forgiving when Joe Walsh comes over the soundsystem yet again (though four television screens are four too many).
The building's retro-industrial rusticity also adds to the Gin Mill's sense of comfort. Walls are deep olive and the exposed-beam ceiling hangs low. From our booth, one of several that line the wall adjacent to Boston Street, the space feels snug, even though it's large enough to house a horseshoe-shaped bar paneled in the decorative tin most often used for ceilings and a small lounge with a stone fireplace.
The Gin Mill's menu is snug and compact, too, supplemented by almost daily specials. While some, like Brain Freeze trivia night on Wednesdays, have nothing to do with food, others like Monday's Steak Night, where 12 ounces of sirloin cost $12, offer something of a deal. The same holds for Tex-Mex Tuesdays, where beef, fish, or chicken tacos are $1.75 each. "I usually order six tacos for my meal," offered our waiter/bartender. We ordered two, the chicken and the steak (no fish tacos were offered), as an appetizer, and while the beef came overcooked, the shredded chicken breast was fine. Garnished with tomatoes, cilantro, and guacamole and served with beans and rice and shredded lettuce, it was simple, cheap, bar food, tasty and filling.
Chicken wings ($8.50), another bar staple, are offered four ways: hot, Old Bay, bbq [sic], and our choice, Thai chili. The choice proved to be a good one. I can't remember wings with such ample meat, and the sauce set up the taste buds for spicy sweetness before sneaking in some serious burn. This was bar food dressed up for Saturday night.
Ahi tuna tempura ($10) also sported some flash. Sliced batter-dipped tuna fried long enough to crisp the outside leaving the interior rosy raw evokes the same reaction as fried ice cream. It's odd and gimmicky and totally unnecessary (squishy and crunchy; hot and cold), but it works, though the squiggles of various sauces--sesame soy, mango puree, wasabi cream--all get lost in the wasabi.
The half dozen or so entrées at the Gin Mill include the aforementioned steak, a pork chop, and several seafood dishes. We had already ordered a halibut filet ($19) when the word came from the kitchen that they were out. We substituted with the deep sea risotto, listed on the menu at $23, but didn't realize until we looked again at the check that we were charged for the less expensive fish entrée--a kind touch. The risotto turned out to be less an integrated dish and more seafood stew over rice, crammed with clams, giant mussels, scallops, and also a lot of salt. Cutting back on the seasoning would be a boon.
Chicken penne Anastasia ($15) packs a lot of richness--mushrooms, knobs of chicken, bacon, parmesan, cream--into a dish of pasta. Even if you are a sucker for rich food, this begins to feel too heavy after the first few indulgent bites. In comparison, a plate of baby back ribs ($10) feels just right, especially with a side of caraway-spiked slaw and shoestring fries.
On this visit the Gin Mill offers only one dessert, banana bread pudding ($7), but it's quite nice, a soft square of cinnamon, caramel, and butter- and cream-infused bread with only the faintest taste of bananas. You would never have seen it in an earlier generation of Canton gin mills, but sometimes progress pleases.