Riding the Rails
An upscale restaurant in the old B&O headquarters offers an exhilarating, if bumpy, ride
Take one nationally recognized, award-winning chef touting an upscale home-style menu heavy on local, seasonal, and eco-conscious ingredients. Add an historic Beaux-Arts building re-imagined as a sleek contemporary bar/lounge. Throw in polished service and the backing of a hip, boutique hotel chain, and you have all the ingredients that make up B&O American Brasserie, a restaurant that's generated its fair share of buzz since opening in July.
Much of that buzz is well deserved. With many of the city's historic buildings fighting for preservation, it's refreshing to see B&O headquarters repurposed as Hotel Monaco, a plush Kimpton hotel and restaurant, and the dining room is a striking, original space, made more dramatic by the contrast between the creamy marble grandeur of the hotel's lower lobby next door and the grays, blacks, and discreet splashes of burgundy that give the restaurant its shadowy metropolitan aura--the kind that makes you want to pull out your little black dress despite the fact that everyone else is wearing jeans. Two bars (one drinks-oriented, the other an open kitchen of sorts) anchor the downstairs space, and between them sit a row of wide tables flanked with oversized leather chairs. Banquettes covered in cranberry faux croc are tucked into a corner under black textured walls whose surfaces are covered with tiny scooped out ovals, and a large-screen television that often shows train films, giving dinner and a movie a whole new twist. Kitchen noise--a dropped dish, a banged pot--punctuates happy-hour chatter, and while the visual effect of the room is cool, the aural effect is very noisy. That's probably not an issue if you're there simply for an after work cocktail, but dinner conversation proved difficult. A table in the upstairs dining room might prove more amenable if you want to talk to your dining companions.
Chef E. Michael Reidt's menu is much less edgy than the decor, but no less fashionable in its own homey way. Trout is smoked in-house; carrots are heirloom. The grouper listed on the menu was removed and replaced with rockfish, explained our server, after the fish appeared on an endangered list. Not everything is local--steaks are from Vande Rose Farms, which raises the premium Hereford beef and Duroc pork in Oskaloosa, Iowa--but dishes like Murray's Farm chicken with pesto mash, 24-hour pot roast, and braised meatballs sound like they could come from your mother's kitchen. And while it feels like the kitchen is still finding its footing with some dishes, many impressed with their combination of flavors or inventiveness.
Take, for example, the smoked Carolina trout ($10) served under a blanket of snowy horseradish-flecked crème fraiche. Each bite held a crunch of celery root, flaky, salty fish, and that bite of horseradish, a fully satisfying textural combination. Chicken-liver mousse (a steal at $5) looked like mousse au chocolat served in small espresso cup next to a mound of fig jam and a handful of brioches toast fingers. It was as rich as the dessert, too, but clever as the toast fingers were, larger slices of bread would have made the dish easier to enjoy (as much as I would have liked to, you can't really dip soft toast fingers into chicken liver mousse or jam). A small mound of steak tartar liberally infused with garlic shared a plate with silky carpaccio ($12), a dish that's definitely making inroads at Baltimore's higher-end restaurants, and fall squash soup ($7) was saved from humdrumness by a sizeable smoked-ham-hock dumpling floating pale belly up in the amber broth.
If you're interested in bar food, you can order one of several flatbreads with toppings like duck confit and shaved pear or spiced sweet potato and kale, or cast-iron skillets of braised meatballs or barbecue pork ribs meant to be shared. But if it's dinner you want, dive into substantial entrées like a slow braised Yorkshire pork shank ($19) that nearly melts into its accompanying potato puree. This is richrichrich, but worth every meaty morsel and large enough for two to share. The same case can be made for the 24-hour Vande Rose pot roast ($21), except the richness here is tempered by its tangy cooking liquid and the potato is replaced by creamy polenta. Forget about the Friday special seafood pot pie ($21), though, unless you crave only crust and gravy. After passing the dish around the table one diner raised his fork in triumph. "I found a clam!" he crowed, as if it was a winning lottery ticket. And perhaps the crispy skin arctic char ($22) got overlooked in the kitchen because every component of the dish--from the nuggets of braised octopus to the braised white beans--was beyond crispy and overcooked.
Desserts at B&O Brasserie inhabit the same comfort-food territory with more consistent results. A plum crisp ($6) balanced fruit and crunchy topping, basic but satisfying, as was a plump square of pumpkin bread pudding ($7). And a simple, darkly elegant chocolate espresso tart ($7) won over the chocolate lover at the table.
The restaurant offers a well thought-out beer and wine list, and though service was painstakingly slow (we were told the restaurant was down a server due to a family emergency), our server maintained her composure despite being saddled with far too many tables. She checked back when she could, made recommendations with authority, even boxed up leftovers away from the table rather than dumping a to-go box on the table to let the diner do the work (a trend that should be stopped immediately). If there was bread service, we never got any, but that's a small quibble.
B&O isn't perfect yet (and by this time, one hopes that it would be closer to that point), but the components are there. With luck, it will be running full steam ahead very soon.