Bluegrass and High Tides
Yet another adroit, innovative old-fashioned/newfangled spot succeeds
Federal Hill's Bluegrass Tavern (1500 S. Hanover St.,  244-5101, bluegrasstavern.com) is a place to see and be seen. I mention this right away, because on a warm Tuesday night when diners included a local magazine editor and staff from several area restaurants and wine shops, as well as Laura Lippman and David Simon, it seems only appropriate that I, too, should have been spotted.
This is an inevitable happenstance in Smalltimore, yet still one I try strenuously to avoid. It can prove difficult, however. As a result of working locally in wine retail for several years, I've come in contact with more restaurant personnel than befits an anonymous critic, though it's been my (and City Paper's) rule never to review anyone I know personally. And while I've never met Patrick Morrow, Bluegrass's chef, or Jorbie Clark, the restaurant's managing partner, it turns out I do know the restaurant's beverage director, Chris Coker (we've sat on judging panels for the Maryland Governor's Cup Awards), and he was working the night of my visit.
Was Bluegrass's staff tipped off to my presence? Probably. Did I feel that I got special treatment? Not particularly. And most important for you, dear readers, do I think my acquaintance with Coker clouds my review? I hope not. But still, you ought to know the circumstances.
I'll tell you up-front that Bluegrass is a pretty likeable place--from the valet who runs halfway up the block to make sure you don't park in a spot where you can be towed to the outdoor dining that feels remarkably comfortable, despite skirting a busy Baltimore street. That comfort extends inside as well, where a long, narrow bar leads into a snug dining room kitted out in rustic wainscoting and vintage-looking built-ins brimming with glassware. It's coolly casual and hip enough to host a J. Crew catalog shoot, but thankfully, it lacks any 'tude. Rather than hushed whispers, the place fills with the music of people having a good night out, and on a busy night, the noise level can be a challenge even for the staff, who move in close and repeat themselves to make sure they've taken your order correctly. The wine list is nicely affordable and diverse, with bottles ranging from $21 to $40, and cocktails lure with fresh ingredients. The addition of a few more (local) microbrews would complete the beer offerings.
Bluegrass's menu is made for dining improvisation--divided somewhat confusingly into "small bites," "medium bites," "large bites," and "lighter bites," (think: snacks, appetizers, entrées, and sandwiches/lite fare)--and straddles that line between old-fashioned and cutting edge, local and seasonal, that so many restaurants have adopted to good effect. This means the menu changes frequently, and that the fried green tomatoes that share a plate with corned beef tongue and black pepper ice cream may not be around when you visit, or that the "cut of the day" served with ravioli plumped with house-made "A2" steak sauce rather than cheese, won't be New York strip.
If you're lucky, though, the watermelon salad ($9) will still be available. The combination of a spicy, slushy watermelon dressing with Surryano ham and fresh ricotta delights with its contrast of textures: a combination of cool fruit, zippy pepper, salty ham, and creamy, grainy cheese. It's near perfect on a muggy Baltimore night. Tacos ($13) at Bluegrass are an homage to goat, stuffed with both meat and cheese made from the animal. It's a milder preparation than you might imagine, sort of a Nuevo Latino take on a gyro, and if you think you don't like goat, these might convince you otherwise.
Not everything at Bluegrass is as inventive, but there's a place for quiet competence as well, like the round of golden cornbread that arrives (gratis) on the table in a small cast-iron skillet, moister and more satisfying than the crawfish hushpuppies ($5). Or a simply seared rockfish entrée ($23) with crispy, crackling skin. Or the grilled oysters ($12), a distant cousin to the Mad Men-era clams casino, dressed in crunchy, herb-flecked crumb and a nontraditional sprinkle of cheddar. Order these to share, as six of these rich treats are more than any one person can (or maybe, should) digest.
Although house-made charcuterie is fast becoming a local restaurant staple, Bluegrass's charcuterie plate is worth leaving room for. Diners can choose three ($13) or five ($20) choices from a list of seven, which includes flaky rabbit rillettes, their texture akin to high quality tuna, served in a small glass jar; chicken liver mousse dressed with a layer of raspberry aspic; or a round slice of elk breakfast ballotine, silky and fragrant with aromatic spices. Mildly pickled okra and green beans provide a welcome tangy accompaniment to all that richness, and the plate would make a satisfying light meal all by itself or with a salad.
With all the great burgers in town, I was a little surprised that Bluegrass's ($9), though made with local beef, made little impression beyond the nicely turned out shoestring fries that accompanied it. Butter-poached lobster ($28), the tail balanced on a loosely formed disc of lobster meat in a pretty puddle of creamed corn, was a more indulgent, but more satisfying choice. Showered with a confetti of toasted almonds and snappy green peas that added freshness while keeping the whole dish from being cloying, the dish is fussier than anything else on the menu, but still a treat.
On the night we visited, Bluegrass's compact dessert menu ranged from the retro-classic grasshopper pie ($8), a study of brilliant green crème de menthe mousse under a supple chocolate glaze, to a homey blueberry shortcake ($7), complete with sweet biscuit and house-made ice cream. They made a satisfying end to a satisfying meal, one that you can enjoy whether you are seeing or being seen.