"Remember that old episode of The Tracey Ullman Show, where the girl packs her bags, gets everything together to move and change houses, and then just moves next door?" asks Ed Bloom, chef at Ethel and Ramone's in Mount Washington. "That's Baltimore."
Bloom comes from what he describes as a "restaurant family"--his uncle owned the Club Charles (the old gourmet spot in Charles Village, "the type of place where Bob Hope and Dean Martin came when they were in Baltimore," not the long-lived hipster bar in Station North). And when he got back to Baltimore in 2000, after a half-decade in New Orleans studying under Paul Prudhomme, the famous Cajun restaurateur and TV chef, he knew if he was going to cook Cajun-Creole, he had to cook Maryland Cajun-Creole.
In 2000, Bloom bought Ethel and Ramone's from Jeff Berkow, who is now his business partner. The name was simply made up. There is no Ethel, no Ramone. The menu features Cajun-Creole and locally inspired dishes, including a delicious, fiery, mud-colored gumbo made with three types of stock, and a refreshingly straightforward crab appetizer: just a little cup of steamed blue-shell meat that you can drizzle with a pinkish remoulade.
Bloom found inspiration in his childhood home as well as his hometown. "My mom was a real influence because she took a traditional Jewish diet--pot roast and that kind of stuff--and kept it in the whole-food realm, with the least amount of cooking," Bloom says. "I like to alter the natural state of the food as little as possible. . . . If you take green beans and cook them for too long, it becomes green water. We only steam and sauté things at very high temperatures.
"Keep your eye right here," he says, indicating the server station. "You'll see."
A server comes and moves a plate of Bloom's Maryland pan-fried chicken. Instead of using a roux, which has a heavy binding flavor, the chicken is fried with a mire poix, a mix of diced vegetables meant as a light, crisp flavor infusion, rather than an overpowering sauce.
"When you bite down on the chicken, you get that pop and sweetness of the celery, that clear, clean laser focus of the palate," Bloom says.
As the dinner hour progresses, one example of Maryland Cajun-Creole after another leaves the kitchen: crab cakes ("instead of mustard, we use a chile pepper seasoning"), rockfish, and oysters, all with "a Louisiana twist," come off the stove. The only thing missing is Natty Boh. (Bloom recommends Anchor Steam to complement the gumbo.)
This mix of Cajun-Creole, local, and familial inspirations means a lot to Bloom, who lives near Ethel and Ramone's and spends most of his time there. "My restaurant is my home," he says.