Food on the Hill
Inventive cuisine delights in Southeast Baltimore
Blue Hill Tavern glows, an incongruous giant cube of radiating light smack dab on Conkling Street. That it's neither blue (at least from the outside), nor a tavern (though it does have bars) is immaterial. (According to our server, the restaurant's name was a last-minute choice, plucked from a hat just before the restaurant opened.) It is on a hill, however, and the view from the rooftop deck and veranda reminds you why Highlandtown is called such. To see East Baltimore twinkle and sparkle from this angle is a treat usually reserved for those who live in Fells Point and Canton. To eat as inventively as one can at Blue Hill Tavern, and not be in Fells Point or Canton, is another.
Blue Hill's compact, one-page menu offers ingredients such as brioche and quail eggs, miso and huckleberry. Spirits are infused with lemongrass, cucumber, or vanilla. Cooking is done sous vide; dishes are often assembled to trompe l'oeil effect; sauces are layered, surprising affairs. Like the décor, done up in chic club-meets-museum robin's egg blue and gunmetal gray, the food walks a line between over the top and modern classic, clever and fussy. Based on a recent Friday night visit, though, it almost always succeeds.
The restaurant's menu changes four to six times a year, and had just changed a few days prior to our visit, so that the cheese soup with grilled tomato wedges listed on the web site had been replaced with its inverse: tomato soup with grilled cheese wedges ($7). The roasted red peppers in the pureed soup gave it a slight tang, keeping the flavor from being one-dimensional, and though the white truffle butter in the fontina cheese toasts was negligible, the whole pairing is a clever take on a childhood favorite.
More cleverness abounds in the steak and eggs appetizer ($14). This time the conceit is breakfast: two perfect tiny fried quail eggs, the yolks slightly loose and creamy, stretch across an impossibly thin layer of rosy sirloin carpaccio. The effect is lovely except for the strawberry jam on the brioche toast, which breaks the illusion of breakfast food by becoming breakfast food. A savory jam would be a better complement.
But what's most appealing about Blue Hill's menu is how usual entrées become unusual. The pork tenderloin's ($22) description is relegated to a list of ingredients--8 ounces of pork, cauliflower puree, spinach, Irish potatoes--never coming close to hinting at the complex flavors within. A small slick of puree at the center of the plate sets the base flavor, a sweet earthiness that is picked up in the exotic spice rub coating the pork, which was tender and flavorful despite the diner asking for it well done.
Humble short ribs ($23) are cooked sous vide (vacuum-sealed, in a water bath) for 48 hours at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving them to shred with only slight fork pressure. Collard greens helped cut the richness--especially of the ultra-aromatic, mildly sweet sauce (was it five spice powder? Vanilla bean?)--that cloaked the ribs. It's an unusual set of flavors, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
The rabbit entrée ($24)--a tiny, frenched rack, a leg, and a salty, speck-wrapped loin dressed in demi-glace--was much more straightforward, though no less compelling, and the fluffy polenta dotted with dusky thyme was a fine addition to the plate. Least impressive (and least generous) was the surf and turf ($22), an overly spiced crab cake and petite 4-ounce filet, which the kitchen managed to cook medium rare despite its thinness.
If possible, it's worth saving room for desserts. Pumpkin fritters ($8) are like a spicy version of the mini donuts at the farmers' market but better, with a cardamom sauce that surprises with a spicy shot of ginger. An individual pecan pie ($8) is as good as you'd make at home, if you took the time to candy pecans and crank up a batch of banana ice cream to go alongside. And then there's the chocolate silken tart ($8), a 3-inch high, densely concentrated mousse spread over an Oreo cookie crust and covered in whipped cream. Yes, the mousse is really good, and yes, I'm sure the word "Oreo" makes it a seller, but please, ditch the preservative-filled cookie in favor of something better, preferably homemade; the store-bought cookie flavor distracts and mars an otherwise sophisticated dessert.
Not everything at Blue Hill Tavern is spectacular. The mojito infused with lemongrass rum was far too sweet, and the wine list is nearly exclusively New World, featuring some fancy high-end California bottling. The waterfall behind the downstairs bar, the organza-covered light fixtures, the faux-snakeskin-covered dining chairs, and giant wall art all add to the restaurant's sleekness, but if you're more serious about dining than seeing and being seen, make sure you ask for a table in the upstairs dining room. Even then, the din of the bars and the people passing between them will permeate. Try to block them out. The real show is on the plate in front of you.