Henninger's Delivers Much More Than Its Name Promises
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, thought Juliet, but would anyone pay $30 a dozen if roses were called dillwads? Would Juliet still love Romeo if he was named Larry? No, names matter, else the Walters would still be a gallery and Queen Latifah would be Dana Owens.
It had been a while since I dined there, but for a long while, Henninger's Tavern was a restaurant I was eager to recommend, or I would when I could remember its name. The kind of place that Henninger's is--an exceedingly intimate, lovingly managed small restaurant--feels nothing like a Henninger's Tavern. A place called Henninger's should be a big, bumptious sprawling affair, where the waiters wear funny buttons and where you drop your business card in a bowl for a chance at a free happy hour.
And I could never keep Bank Street straight from Bond Street on my mental map of Fells Point, although now that the signage on the Bond Street Wharf building is visible from Delaware, I can unhesitatingly explain that Bank Street is the street that runs east to west one block north of Eastern Avenue.
Henninger's, on a recent return visit, was as attractive and welcoming as I remembered, as it was for a friend who recalled that Henninger's was his favorite restaurant for second dates--a concept that I found interesting, if only in theory. If only Romeo and Juliet had agreed to meet for dinner at Henninger's, she could have waited at the sweet little bar, where the winsome bartender would be much better company than some dumb friar. And if Juliet got hungry (teenagers!), she could eat from the menu of items available only at the bar--maybe an oyster sandwich.
But then, there's every reason to move into the adjacent dining room, which is sweetly formal on first glance but that, on further investigation, reveals a curator's eye for mixing high art with kitschy memorabilia. The eight or so tables are close enough for neighboring diners to advise you on your menu selections, and music--perhaps a Louis Jordan recording--plays quietly, setting the mood for a great evening, highlighted, of course, by a great meal. And Henninger's delivers.
Before leaving Romeo and Juliet behind, I will invoke their memory once more, or at least their sensational bad timing. Henninger's changes its menu seasonally, and we dined there, as it turned out, on one of the last days of the winter menu. A new menu is in the works and may debut, we were told, as soon as Valentine's Day.
Nevertheless, the appetizers we tried, Texas barbecue shrimp ($7.75) and the pan-fried breaded oysters ($7.25), are signature presentations here and among my favorite appetizers period. They're not going anywhere soon. On the first, five large shrimp come wrapped in smoked bacon, brushed with a tangy sauce, and served over a bed of warm cucumber salad. It's a great mix of sweet and salty flavors that does what appetizers are intended to do--wake up your tongue. And the plump oysters, breaded adroitly, are served on spinach with a cream of Pernod and fennel. More great flavors. And if I tell you that Henninger's Caesar salad ($4.75) belongs in the front ranks of such efforts in Baltimore, I mean to damn it with faint praise. It's OK.
Henninger's lists only eight entrées on its winter dinner menu, and no specials were offered on the night we dined there. Vegetarians would have found nothing to choose from, although people who call themselves vegetarians but eat fish would have had a choice of tuna, mahimahi, and salmon ($17), the last of which--our selection--was baked and served with lemon-garlic orzo and rapini, aka broccoli rabe. All in all, a thoughtful presentation of a mild fish that sometimes suffers from overenterprising chefs.
Crab cakes ($22.50) will surely make it onto the spring menu. They're golden and truly lumpy, and the accompanying slaw is the good tart kind, with its ingredients actually identifiable by sight and taste. On the other hand, the pan-seared veal chop ($25) might presumably not remain much past Presidents' Day. Too bad, because Henninger's version--endorsed by the anniversary couple at the next table--was satisfying, in a big-appetite kind of way. Served with polenta, flavored with (not enough) pancetta, and served with roasted fennel and Madeira pan sauce, it was woodsy and robust but never heavy.
Dinner was not inexpensive here, and although it would have been possible to make a meal from a few of the appetizers, Henninger's is probably best enjoyed when you're fully willing to devote your credit and your attention, while keeping in mind that a less expensive menu is available at the bar. Keep your eyes out for that spring menu, too.
Julie et: Omnivore@citypaper.com.