Bigger is Better?
The expanded Clementine does most of what made it a foodie haven
A pair of haunches hangs behind glass in Clementine's expanded dining room. Below them, a farmers-market jumble of quail eggs, potatoes, and dark-as-a-forest greens sit on steel tables or tumble from crates. In oversized thick glass jars, sliced cucumbers are preserved and suspended in pickling liquid like science specimens.
Although this living still life might not appeal to folks who would rather see their food on the plate rather than on the hoof, it feels appropriate that Clementine's new space offers a window into its storage and preservation. Charcuterie, farm-fresh produce and meat, the old-fashioned items, like pickles, that are enjoying a renaissance in foodie circles: This is the stuff upon which the restaurant, rightly, has built its reputation and gained its foodie following. And its success has enabled owners Cristin Dadant and Winston Blick to more than double the size of the restaurant since opening in 2008. Unlike the cozy deli vibe of the original Clementine (which is still in use), the expanded bar and dining room, decked out in russet-red walls and the occasional stag's head, make this side of the restaurant feel like a chic western lodge, so much so that after one of Clementine's potent new herb-garnished cocktails (courtesy of a liquor license upgrade), you might expect to see horses, rather than autos, pulling up on Harford Road, as they once did when this neighborhood still fostered family farms rather than farm-to-table restaurants.
But for all this, Clementine's expansion seems to have had little effect on its clientele--it still hosts everyone from plaid-shirted foodies to multi-generational families--or on the size of the menu, which varies slightly each night. And for the most part, its "Makers of Fine Foods" motto is still apt. Those pickles--officially "Lucielle's Bread and Butter Pickles"--are simply the best around, both piquant and savory/sweet, and the best thing on a seafood charcuterie plate ($12) that also holds a violently orange, but sweetly fresh, lobster paté and unremarkable boudain made with shrimp, crab, and crawfish.
There are other goodies here, like a dynamite purple slaw with a spicy slow burn that accompanies a double-D-sized seared duck breast ($25) sticky with root beer barbecue sauce. It rests on a hearty bed of gouda-laced mashed potatoes voluptuous with richness. Slightly less sinful are the rice and veggie stuffed peppers ($14), an indication that just because a restaurant celebrates meat doesn't mean that it can't do vegetarian well. Here, nuggets of sun-dried tomato and mushrooms doused in a meltingly creamy rose sauce elevate this kitchen dinner dish into something worthy of the dining room.
Yet despite these successes, some items at Clementine puzzle or simply fail to dazzle. The components of the Vietnamese baked tile fish entrée ($18)--the fish, roasted snow peas, a pineapple chile salad--are all pleasant, but the flavors never come together to make a dish to impress. And for a restaurant known for its charcuterie, the house-made chorizo ($14) is an enigma--dry, crumbly, and with too little fat. It is described on the menu as being served over "beans and black-eyed peas with slow-cooked greens," but beans other than black-eyed peas are suspiciously absent in the bed of pilaf on the plate.
This lack isn't much to quibble about except there were similar menu irregularities with an order of soup. The "[t]urnip carrot ginger [soup] with minted honey yogurt" ($4 cup/$5 bowl) also includes a hefty dose of unlisted curry (there is another curried soup--"low country curried catfish"--on the menu as well). Not mentioning the curry feels like an odd omission on a menu that meticulously lists curry in two other dishes (and notes the presence of Riesling blueberries and Popi honey in chicken liver paté), especially when said curry dominates other flavors in the soup.
Service felt oddly insouciant at times too. Are servers naturally reserved, so that rather than greet you or ask if you have a reservation, instead just hope you'll follow them wordlessly and understand that the table they're standing by is for you? Are they simply too shy to realize that a smile accompanying their kind patience while folks dither over menu choices makes it clear that it's OK to take your time (even if it isn't)? No one was unkind the night we visited, but there wasn't much joy either. "More tolerance than welcome," as one diner at our table put it.
A little more care would make the Clementine experience as sweet, consistent, and old-fashioned mannerly as a neat slice of yellow cake layered with citrus frosting and dotted with blueberries ($5)--or as any of the picnic-basket home-baked goods on offer. Make no mistake: There are good ideas behind Clementine. All the ingredients are there.