Corks Serves Up a Very Good Month
Anyone serious about good food and wine should make a point of getting down to Corks, Jerry Pellegrino's joint in Federal Hill, for no other reason than to experience the clear and dedicated effort by the whiz of a kitchen and impeccable staff to surprise and awe its diners. The menu of entrées (changed every month) is engaging and adventurous, and the preparations, beyond being terrific tasting, complex, surprising, and zestful, are eye-pleasing doozies.
Take, for instance, the wasabi-encrusted ahi tuna ($28), served with a Japanese seaweed salad, baby bok choy, mushroom soy, and a few (unbilled) vegetable sushi rolls. The tuna is wrapped into tiny towers of different heights, and, with the variously sized and shaped go-withs arranged around it on a sleek black surface, the dish looks like a scale model for a Martian office complex. Simple things are done imaginatively, too--for its mesclun salad ($9), Corks adds in a generous slice of aromatic Petit Basque cheese, a nest of fresh-shaved fennel, and slivers of Indian flatbread that tasted uncannily like . . . Munchos. Mmmm . . . Munchos.
Corks describes itself as a haven for wine lovers, and there's deserved pride taken in the support Pellegrino and his sommelier, Christopher Coker, give to small, artisan winemakers. If you come in need of French wine for toasting Dominque de Villepin, however, you'll have to look elsewhere--Corks' list is exclusively and purposefully domestic. While the printed wine list remains admirably free of oenophilic jargon, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, there still remains about the descriptions something of the vintage explainer--excellent if you were a vintage, but if not, not. To his great credit, our server provided us with sensible advice and ultimately guided us toward a lower-priced bottle than the one we had originally proposed.
It would be a pity if April's menu failed to include the spectacular oyster appetizer we loved so much ($9)--three plump oven-roasted oysters topped with spinach, bacon, and velvety hollandaise to crow about, the oysters themselves embedded in something resembling a bonsai garden. A crab and scallion fondue, served in a crisp phyllo bird's nest, however, would not be missed much; the concoction immobilized my dining companion, who kept looking for a point of entry, ultimately deciding that the intriguing mix of flavors didn't compensate for overall preciousness. If Corks tends to err, it's toward the fussy.
A Caesar salad ($7), served with a piquant red-wine Caesar dressing and Pecorino Romano-cheese croutons, was of the big-shards-of-unmolested-romaine kind, which always looks so pretty but is seldom as purely satisfying as the old-fashioned variety, in which someone has gone and chopped everything up or you. A huge predinner plus: unsurpassably fine rolls, dense and chewy, brought in each day from Bonaparte Breads bakery.
Among our entrées, the standouts were the previously mentioned ahi tuna and a porcini-dusted breast of free-range chicken ($21). I can't recall ever having better chicken in a restaurant--tender, buttery, and what was that unusual flavor? Yes, I know--chicken! Gilding this lily were a dense, mouth-pleasing oyster-mushroom and scallion risotto and a pomegranate reduction. Almost equally praiseworthy were a succulent salmon ($22), which came paired with coconut and mustard seed basmati rice and blood orange butter, and that evening's pasta special ($21), a he-man-sized dish of firmly cooked penne mixed liberally with peas and chewy, chewy pancetta. When we informed our server of our lack of admiration for a less-than-stellar piece of London broil ($29), it was whisked away without protest and replaced tout de suite with a plate of dark and woody medallions of veal ($26).
Although our meal was well paced and leisurely, we found ourselves too full for much dessert. We'll be back, probably, to see what April's menu brings and to give Sharon Braitsch's pastries--and Corks' offerings of dessert wines--a fair try. For the record, though, we just plain didn't like the poached-pear Napoleon with chocolate pudding and puff pastry ($7). The only word is yecchy.
If I were some French guy with a dining guide, I might withhold one tiny star from Corks, and have no better explanation for it than that the place lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, an indefinable something that makes a great restaurant great. It's an ambience thing. I suspect it has something to do with the entrance, which leads you awkwardly past an open kitchen or, perhaps, with the front dining room, where we were seated, which felt stiff, almost like the stage set for a serious modern drama. Diners here have a direct view into the larger back dining room, which looked considerably warmer and less formal--a dejecting sight not unlike the train full of bon vivants that Woody Allen sees from his own depressing, dismal train in Stardust Memories. However, you might go there and decide, within seconds, that you like it just the way it is.
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