Raising the Bar
A Federal Hill bar features fine-dining food
By all accounts, The Reserve is a bar. Perched on a dark corner across from an animal hospital, it looks like a bar. Its web site proudly announces itself as "Federal Hill's newest bar." And of course, inside it has, well, a bar, as well as more than a dozen premium beers on tap, 11 television sets, and the din associated with folks having spirited conversations fueled by sports and alcohol.
And yet, everything about the eating portion of the establishment (a half dozen or so four-tops smack dab in the middle of the "bar")--from black-cloth covered tabletops to the gracious (if overextended) service to the valet parking to heavy cutlery and fine glassware--says "restaurant." Sure, there are bar favorites like wings and calamari on the menu, but how many bars grill the calamari and toss it with a rich tomato ragout and nuggets of smoked mozzarella ($8) or prepare wings with honey and coriander as well as Cajun style? Or serve rack of lamb or roast quail along with crab cakes and filet mignon as entrées? Or choose bison for its burger and buffalo for its strip steak? Often when a bar (or a restaurant) takes these kinds of chances with the menu, the results are less than stunning, but I'm happy to report that despite a few quirks, the Reserve can easily chew what it has bitten off.
It also has the patrons to prove it. Late on a mid-week evening, one server (with backup from several kitchen runners) moved tray after tray of beer and white wine, pumpernickel boules of creamy crab dip, and several plates of blackened scallops ($11), that proved firm and sweet, though the black bean and corn relish could use a little citrus zing.
Although the Reserve does offer four sandwiches and wraps, as well as several soups and salads (including one with duck confit, toasted pumpkin seeds, dried cherries, Gorgonzola, and fried potato curls--whew!), the greater choices lie in the entrées, divided into four from the land and four from the sea. On this particular evening, the land fared better. Pan-roasted semi-boneless quail ($16) beautifully browned and extremely moist, may have been the centerpiece of the plate, but forks battled to scoop up soft pebbles of the Israeli couscous made slightly sweet with the inclusion of golden raisins. At $16, it was the deal of the evening, though the generous portion of pistachio-encrusted rack of lamb ($19) made an equally strong impression, despite slightly under-roasted cipollini onions, baby carrots, and Brussels sprouts that were more bland than savory.
Grilled cornmeal-crusted red grouper ($16) had just the right crispness without being dry, and the potato hash dotted with edamame and corn with an unusual layer of smoked salmon underneath gave the dish a welcome smoky brightness. The crab cake ($18), however, underwhelmed. Perhaps something so basic might get overlooked in a kitchen turning out more complicated dishes, because the cake was dry and crispy, rather than rich and moist, and the accompanying lukewarm butternut squash mashed potatoes didn't make things any better.
So many small restaurants don't make their own desserts these days that it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Reserve does. And if you love dessert, please make room for these. Although the kitchen was out of the pecan and pumpkin strudel (damn!), our server offered a lovely chocolate mousse ($6) served in an edible chocolate cup and perfectly balanced so that it didn't overwhelm with sweetness. A gingered crème brûlée ($6) was also refreshingly subtle. Palates that have gotten used to grocery-store sweets may be yearning for more sugar in their desserts, but I found these flavors sophisticated and refreshingly grown up.
The Reserve already has plans to enlarge its space, and I'll be curious to see what happens to the menu once the proposed upstairs dining room and expanded kitchen open in mid-January. But my hope is that a surprisingly good thing will only get better.