Old Dog, New Tricks
Hampden isn’t exactly known for its fine dining. It’s more of a quirky eatery kind of place, where the Golden West Café and Holy Frijoles! reign supreme. Now Galen Sampson, former executive chef at the Harbor Court Hotel, and his wife, Bridget, have transformed a symbol of all that is Hampden kitsch, the former Mamie’s space, into a fine-dining restaurant that exudes elegance without being fussy.
It’s a change that practically symbolizes the neighborhood’s evolution from working-class stronghold to yuppie enclave complete with chichi boutiques taking over spaces once held by old-school variety stores. But for Sampson, the Dogwood is the realization of years of hard work.
“Having my own restaurant has always been a dream of mine,” Sampson says. “I’ve been in the restaurant business now for about 20 years, and it was all preparing myself to be able to do this one day.”
Sampson’s dream was more than just designing his own menu and being his own boss; he wanted a restaurant that would represent his beliefs as well as his culinary techniques. And that means that both the Dogwood, which opened in February, and the Dogwood Deli, the attached gourmet sandwich and smoothie shop that opened last August and instantly became a neighborhood favorite, strive to be green businesses, recycling whatever they can. Sampson also recently received an Open Society Institute grant to start an apprenticeship program for people transitioning back into the work force from addictions treatment or incarceration. He hopes the program will go beyond teaching basic job skills to actually start people in careers in the restaurant business.
But the main principle behind Dogwood is buying locally produced food. Sampson works with local farmers to make a menu that is driven by what is ripe in Maryland right now, getting vegetables to diners just days after they have been picked. “Buying local is really important because the food tastes better,” he says. “One chef I worked for basically said great food is just getting great ingredients and putting it together on a plate.”
It’s a philosophy that Sampson sincerely believes in, and a recent menu dedicated to mushrooms didn’t disappoint. The food, like a butternut squash soup with scallops and mushrooms, was fancy without being pretentious, delicately flavored but pleasantly hearty, European-influenced American fare.
The Dogwood is starting out small; the current menu has three appetizers, three entrées, and two desserts that change according to what is at peak season. But Sampson has plans to open a wine bar this summer and expand the menu as he gets comfortable with his new surroundings.
The ultimate goal isn’t so much to be a symbol of “New Hampden” as to be a restaurant for people who, like Sampson and his wife, live in the area. “We want to be a neighborhood restaurant,” he says. “We want to be approachable with what our food is and with pricing. We want to be something that you can feel comfortable coming in and having an elegant meal but in a casual atmosphere.”
And while the restaurant is a dream, it’s also a demanding job. “You can actually see the restaurant from the top floor of our house,” Sampson says. “We can never get away.” Anna Ditkoff
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201