Easy as Pie
New Hampden Restaurant Offers Savory Pies and Not so Sweet Service
There are a number of preferences we're asked to declare in a given day: coffee or tea? Obama or McCain? But perhaps none is so pleasant as the choice between pie or cake. I'm all about pie, and so is Dangerously Delicious Savory House, (3547 Chestnut Ave.,  662-7437), piemaker Rodney Henry's new Hampden outpost, where it's all pie, all the time.
Henry's Dangerously Delicious concept holds subversive appeal--the tattooed, rockin' and rollin' tough guy who just happens to have a light touch with pastry, creating homey favorites that recall Grandma's kitchen rather than postpunk anarchy. And reinventing the dainty Finnerteas tearoom space as a home for the Savory House only furthers that odd dichotomy. Vestiges of Finnerteas remain: in the pretty pale green sunroom that contrasts wildly with the garnet red walls in the restaurant's vestibule and dining room; in the assorted collection of dainty teacups that grace the tables. Glass showcases that once held floral patterned china now hold pies and a lonely pile of black Dangerously Delicious T-shirts. But the addition of black iron chandeliers, the sacred heart of Elvis print, and the Crayola-bright posters advertising shows by Henry's band, the Glenmont Popes, creates an effect that is more Mrs. Lovett than Mrs. Smith.
Clearly this is not your grandma's tea room, but the Savory House might be better if it were. Baltimore could use more restaurants that offer creative, alternative dining experiences--Hampden neighbor Rocket to Venus is one successful example of a spot with a funky vibe that also delivers fine food--but diners also expect quality food and service at fair prices, and Savory House just doesn't deliver. Things were so askew on a Friday afternoon, I wondered if I misunderstood when the restaurant had opened (Aug. 4 I was told in a pre-visit phone call), and when I tried to confirm, our confused server told me breathlessly, "Just barely a month." (A follow-up call confirmed the August date.)
As might be obvious, the Savory House offers pie and only pie, and the heady scent of pie crust baking permeates the small space. Selections change daily but generally include three savory pies, a handful of quiches, and around a half-dozen dessert pies, all of which are noted on a chalkboard in the sunroom. This makes it awkward if you're sitting in the dining room, especially if you're with a large party as either one person must get up and memorize the day's listings to repeat back to the table or everyone must schlep into the sunroom to look over the shoulder of the unlucky person sitting under the chalkboard. Photocopying the day's menu or adding another board to the main dining room--maybe in the corner (described by one diner politely as "unresolved") that currently hosts a lone table with a dirty rag, water pitcher, and bric-a-brac--would be an easy solution.
We were told right away that there was no crab and cheddar quiche and no peanut butter chocolate pie and soon found out that there was also no salad, which generally comes with the pie, though we had to ask. "If it's not fresh," the server said of the salad, we don't keep it. "When we're out, we're out." In theory, this is an admirable practice; no one wants to eat wilted, spoiled greens. But couldn't you order more fresh greens? Or even make an emergency run to the store for a head of lettuce? Because all we're having then is, um, pie. Our server did promise "an extra-large portion of pie" to make up for the lack, but the point of the salad was contrast, not more of the same.
There was similar confusion over beverages. On hearing that one diner was suffering a sore throat, our server kindly suggested a cup of tea. "We've got tons," he enthused, but he didn't know what kinds or if there was honey for sweetening it--there wasn't.
Despite these inconsistencies, the pies themselves aren't bad. The not-extra-large slice of mushroom-Swiss quiche ($7), in fact, was quite good, rich with eggs, cream, and enough tangy Swiss to give it gutsiness. The sausage and roasted vegetable pie ($7.50) boasted tongue-tingling spice, and roasting brought out the silky texture of the fennel and red peppers. Putting this filling in a crust, however flaky and appealing, felt incongruous; it would be better suited to a bed of soft polenta or mashed potatoes. The chicken pot pie looked to be the most popular savory of the day. I saw it at a number of tables, its crust falling into shards and mixing with the chunks of chicken, carrots, and bright green peas.
Dessert at the Savory House is (surprise!) more pie. While we didn't really want another slice of pie, we did crave something sweet, so we trekked back to the sunroom to review our choices, which included raspberry, blueberry, lemon chess, sweet potato, and White Trash. The lemon chess ($6) nearly glowed with that unbelievable yellow that comes from combining eggs and cornmeal, but I wish it had more tartness. The White Trash, aka crème brûlée pie ($7), had a bad day. It spilled over my plate, weeping profusely from under its sugar crust as if I had insulted it. The addition of cinnamon made it taste like rice pudding, but it lacked the body of that confection, and the women at a nearby table pronounced the pie "mushy."
On any given day, I'd be thrilled to have a slice of pie, but woman does not live on pie alone. Nor does a restaurant succeed only on image. You have to forgive a lot to really enjoy the Savory House, and at $28 for four slices of pie, I'm not ready to forgive.