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Eating Out

Looking Back At 2007 Over The Menus

The City Paper Digi-Camô

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 12/12/2007

All of a sudden, at the end of the year, big restaurants from big people--Cinghiale, the new Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman Northern Italian joint in booming Harbor East; Lemongrass, a Baltimore version of an Annapolis Thai institution; and Woodberry Kitchen, Spike Gjerde's farm-to-table experiment in Clipper Mill. And before that, an odd year, in which the best news was the emergence of a smattering of standby restaurants, where expectations were shrewdly managed and prices were kept moderate in exchange for scant moments of transcendence.

Rocket to Venus. I know, enough already, but this Hampden corner spot epitomized the year in dining: comfort food, nostalgia, a turning away from cosmopolitanism, and retrenchment into neighborhoods. Working a blue-collar Space Age theme, which could only make sense in Hampden, Rocket reined in the hipness, and there are nights still when the staff is not only compliant but outgoing and friendly as well. The everyday menu cobbles together rib-sticking pierogi, vegetarian wimpies, Brussels sprouts, fried pickles, and grilled cheese sandwiches, but the specials have increasingly taken on a grown-up attitude.

Jack's Bistro. This time the lucky neighborhood is Canton, but Ted Stelzenmuller's kitchen as playground, only a few blocks off O'Donnell Square, works by not feeling anything like the other restaurants nearby. Swedish snack food, macaroni and cheese with chocolate, cheeseburger soup, and Jell-O ahi tuna salad got people talking, but it was the dead-on crabcake and the Guinness-bathed tenderloin, one of Baltimore's superior steaks, that had the neighborhood coming back and settling in. We know the staff only to be lovely in every way, and Jack's would be a superior hangout in any city. Three, over in Patterson Park, and Yellow Dog, on the other side of Canton, offered more restrained approaches, succeeding from the start.

My Thai. The claim we're standing by is that on any given night in Mount Vernon, when other options feel too formal, casual, expensive, harshly lit, loud, or smoky, the very moderately priced My Thai has emerged as the most reliable option. We've used it for before the theater, for meetings, and for second dates. Usefulness is never enough, but it's an excellent starting point. The service has steadily improved after a rocky start, though the menu needs some pruning of items that are no longer offered. We're willing to discuss the finer points of authenticity over dinner--at My Thai.

Dinner and a movie below Eastern Avenue, with a whole bunch of restaurants to choose from: newly Cinghiale, Lemongrass, and Lebanese Taverna; been-around Roy's, Fleming's, James Joyce, and even Whole Foods. Not that the new-city weirdness isn't unsettling, and especially not that the effing parking maxes out at two hours, which is the kind of stunt that corrupt cities pull. Still, it's something to do. And down at the Inner Harbor, the insane Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao and P.F. Chang's have moved in beside the Best Buy and the Filene's Basement, and suddenly Pratt Street looks like part of a functioning city. This was the year, too, that real Starbucks started appearing on the streets, in real neighborhoods, and maybe because the refreshingly diverse staffs are trained to be pleasant, most people had no compunction about abandoning the "we don't have medium cups" weirdness around the corner.

Chefs left the soon-to reopen Abercrombie Fine Foods; Saffron, which is now Indigma; and, in their earliest weeks, Cinghiale and Three. Kawasaki reopened under new ownership, Michael Tabrizi returned, giving a tricky Harborview location a sunny wash, and the old Vespa reopened just minutes ago as Junior's Wine Bar. Dogwood Café closed itself up for a few months and reopened looking much healthier, and, as noted above, Spike Gjerde returned, this time in Clipper Mill. Fine dining continued to slip away, as Hamptons closed up in what is now the InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore. Longo's at Greenspring Station and True in the Admiral Fell Inn shut themselves down, too.

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