Woodberry Kitchen, Woodberry

I hadn’t been to Woodberry Kitchen in forever, so on a chilly Saturday afternoon with nothing so terribly important to do, I decided to head up to Baltimore. I called for a reservation, but they were full, so I figured I’d try my hand at the bar.

Arriving at Woodberry Kitchen for the first time is a magnificent experience – there’s almost nothing quite like it in terms of location and setting. The only thing I can think of is Leopold Kafe & Konditorei, but that doesn’t capture it in the least. Hopefully, after reading this post, you’ll want to go see for yourselves.

Avast, the bar was full, but at the host stand, they said they could seat me outdoors. Well, great! This is where I wanted to sit anyway. The difference between dining inside and outside at Woodberry kitchen is the difference between dining at a noisy gastropub with great food, and dining at a Michelin one-star restaurant in the French countryside. Outside, you really *do* feel like you’re in some family-owned, Michelin-starred restaurant in a small French town.

Spike Gjerdge walks-the-walk of farm-to-table as much as anyone I know, including Ziebold, Armstrong, and King. Going in the earliest part of September is perfect because you reap the benefits of late-summer and early-autumn produce, all in one visit. Aside from the chill in the air (and I hadn’t brought a coat or a sweater), this was shaping up to be just about perfect.

If you sit outside, you’ll be near the grill station, where several cooks work with military efficiency, calling out and expediting orders as the smoke bellows upward. It’s the type of thing that’s fascinating to watch, but also off to the side, so it’s not at all intrusive if you don’t want to pay attention to it. I urge people to sit outside here if the weather is nice.

I knew I’d try plenty of produce, so I wanted a bottle of rosé. They had two French rosés priced at $34 each, neither of which I’d tried before.

“May I have whichever one of these two is lighter?” I asked my pleasant server.

“Lighter in body?” she replied.

“Lighter in color,” I said.

She brought the 2012 Domaine Gaillard Touraine-Mesland (a designated sub-appelation within Touraine in the Loire Valley), and it was just as I wanted: light in color, and dry as a bone. This wine has the added benefit of being biodynamic (a step up, both in viticultural stringency, and also in “woo-woo-ness,” from organic). Biodynamic wines are pretty out there, but I almost always love them.

Woodbery Kitchen offers anyone who’s eating a nice bread basket with good bread, and high-quality, creamy, salted butter. I started my meal with an appetizer portion of Ocean City Swordfish Belly ($16) with ground cherry salsa, pickled fish pepper, and scarlet frills; and a salad of Young Carrots and Their Tops ($9) with Hakurei turnips, rocket, shallot, and ewe’s-cream tarragon dressing.

“Can we bring these out as they’re ready?” my server asked.

“Sure,” I said, thinking that the salad would arrive before the (grilled) swordfish; the exact opposite was the case – the swordfish belly arrived a good ten minutes before the salad did.

One reason I ordered the swordfish belly is that I rarely see such a thing (how many times have you seen swordfish belly on a menu?), and that Woodberry Kitchen was offering 3-4 swordfish preps on this evening which almost surely meant they were getting a large portion of fish that they butchered in-house. This is always, always, always a good sign, and if you take away only one thing from this post, remember that multiple preps (usually) = fresh delivery and in-house butchering. Theoretically, it could also mean “an aging item that they want to get rid of,” but I cannot think of a single instance in which I’ve been disappointed by this ordering strategy, certainly not at a restaurant as quality-conscious as Woodberry Kitchen.

The swordfish arrived within just a few minutes, hot off the grill, and rare, nearly raw, in the middle – tataki-like, except in cubes, not strips. Served in a ramekin, this was so good that I couldn’t believe more restaurants aren’t serving it – the gentlemen working the grill station have superior grilling skills. The three sides added something, but were mostly ornamental: the star of this Christmas tree was the tree itself, the cubes of swordfish belly, perfectly seasoned (which probably means just a shake of salt).

I love carrot tops, and wish more restaurants didn’t discard them, and this salad was superb, the other ingredients playing much more than just a supporting role. Everything was integrated, and the dressing was there when you needed it, and not there when you didn’t (it was presented in something of a dollop-pool format). This was a farmer’s market bounty on a plate, with every bite as lovingly devoured as it was assembled.

Imagine both of these dishes with a good, dry rosé, and you’ll see why I was asking myself, “Where can this meal possibly go from here? Nowhere but down.”

For my second (and final) course, I got another duo of small plates: Liberty Delight Beef Tartare ($16) with red onion, scaper [sic?] mayonnaise, parsley, rocket [anything worth doing is worth overdoing], egg yolk, and potato chips; and the one dish that intrigued me the most: Grilled Nectarine ($8) with honey, rosemary, and sea salt.

The nectarine arrived first, and my goodness, if this isn’t a death-row dish, I don’t know what is. One nectarine, quartered, briefly wood-grilled, drizzled with rosemary-infused honey, and finished with a touch of sea salt. Like with a ripe tomato, or an orchid, it is a precarious responsibility trying to improve upon nature’s finest offerings, but this light-handed treatment actually improved the nectarine. Perfection.

In my Baltimore Dining Guide, I have chosen not to rank restaurants in Italic, for the simple, painful reason that I cannot possibly have the expertise to fairly do so with all restaurants in contention; rating a restaurant in Bold, however, is such a rare occurrence, and such a high bar for a restaurant to achieve that I would feel quite comfortable in doing so, regardless of whether the restaurant is in my backyard, or in Paris.

I walked out of this nearly perfect meal not knowing what to do. Should I rank Woodberry Kitchen in bold? How could I not, after what I had just experienced?

So I decided to come back again, with the ranking being theirs to lose.

Late on a Sunday afternoon, a friend and I found ourselves at a packed Woodberry Kitchen, with no seats available outside, and a 45-minute wait. We put our names in, and stole the last two empty seats at the bar for some pre-meal festivities.

I didn’t remember that Woodberry Kitchen was long-listed (1 of 25 candidates) for the 2013 James Beard award for “Outstanding Bar Program” in the United States, but let me tell you: based on the five cocktails we had on this evening, it absolutely deserved to be there. These were some of the most creative, balanced, nuanced cocktails I have ever experienced, and were worth every penny of the $12 they cost.

A Pedantic Word – Vermont raw honey gin, yellow watermelon juice, red delicious cider, house made fennel k’vass, and caramelized watermelon

Carmelita – Reposado tequila, mezcal, sweet corn, lime, and jalapeño

Cellar Door – House-spiked rum, Reid’s suffolk grapes, Artiface cold brew, verjus, and lime bitters

Union Swizzle – Gold & Overproof rums, house sour, kiwi berries, candied ground cherries, and crushed ice

Fat Boxer – New York state rye and corn whiskey, peach pit caramel, heavy cream, barrel-aged bitters, and Pumpkin Stout

All of these cocktails surpassed any expectations I could have possibly put on this restaurant, and even the absolutely crazy Fat Boxer – which is one of the most bizarre concoctions I’ve ever tasted – was in complete harmony. With every drink, you had the choice of being able to identify any individual ingredient, or turning your mind off and enjoying the flavors meshing together as a unified whole.

Hungry, we also got a couple of snacks to tide us over during the wait, and since we ordered food, also got to enjoy Woodberry’s fine bread basket and outstanding butter.

Roasted Eggplant Dip ($4) made with Charlottetown feta, thyme, and whole wheat crackers was pleasant, interesting, and close to being very good. Deviled Eggs ($4) with chipped ham and fish pepper were right up my alley – three halves, perfectly seasoned for my palate. The third half, presented to a party of two, can make or break a friendship.

Based on this bar experience, we were both throwing around superlatives, and my opinion of Woodberry Kitchen soared higher still. We took a seat outside, this time around the chill being gone from the air.

This being my friend’s first time at Woodberry, I saw no reason not to stick with the tried-and-true 2012 Domaine Gaillard Touraine-Mesland rosé that I vetted last time around, and it was once again a good choice with this cuisine. (You will not regret ordering this wine if you come here – it’s pleasant to sip on its own, but also enhances, without dominating, the food.)

Summer Bean Salad ($11) with green, roma, and flageolet beans, fennel, shallot, and “Skyline” dressing was a victim of the dressing. I’m not sure what Skyline dressing is – perhaps it’s a line of cheese – but I am sure that it dominated the delicacy of the beans. I wish I had something more informed to say other than a feta-like taste was just too much amp for this extremely acoustic dish.

It was a bit late in the season to order the Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho ($7), but it was still clear these were farmer’s market-quality tomatoes. Unfortunately, this was a bland dish that needed salt badly (and got it), and not surprisingly, was a rustic presentation – perhaps a defining moment in the meal, it was here where I realized that I’d like to see a touch more “cooking” instead of relying *so* heavily on quality of ingredients.

The one repeat dish was the Liberty Delight Beef Tartare ($12), and I was surprised to see the presentation had changed, but only because of one ingredient. On this visit, Woodberry Kitchen was featuring full-sour pickles as a snack, and they incorporated these pickles (instead of capers) into the Tartare. It worked fine, and like before, the quality of the egg was impeckable (sorry) – the difference being that on my last visit, this was arguably my least favorite dish; on this visit, it may have been my most favorite dish, despite it being pretty much the same thing.

My dining companion was expecting a more elaborate preparation of the Swordfish & Pork Skirts ($12) with tomatillo, jalapeño, pickled onions, (hold the) cilantro, squash blossoms, and garlic oil, but I knew based on the swordfish belly I had last time that it would be basic, grilled chunks, the pieces of pork skirt just about the same size as the pieces of swordfish. The belly I had last time was less cooked and more oily; these were meatier and drier, with every ingredient other than the two meats seemingly an afterthought – it could have just as easily been a leaf of kale, for example, instead of a squash blossom. This dish was also underseasoned, but its primary sin was that it was a bit overcooked and thus dry.

For dessert, Concord Grape Pie ($12) with Concord grape ice cream because, well, when have you *ever* seen Concord grape pie before? The pie itself was quite good – the crust was world-class – although i couldn’t identify the grapes as Concord because there just wasn’t enough penetration of flavor. Likewise, the ice cream could have been blueberry-vanilla and I wouldn’t have tasted the difference. This was a dessert that looked interesting on paper, but (crust aside) fell a bit short on the plate.

If you haven’t figured this out by now, I had assumed going into the meal that this visit was a formality, and that Woodberry Kitchen would be raised to Bold in the Dining Guide – the ranking was theirs to lose, and unfortunately, despite the incredible cocktails, they lost it. However, I can say with great confidence that Woodberry Kitchen is my favorite restaurant in Baltimore, and one of the very best restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area. It is truly great, even though it fell something short of superlative, and is worthy of a special trip from DC to experience. I’m a bit worried about the future quality of Woodberry Kitchen given the 5,000-square-foot Shoo-Fly about to open from Spike Gjerdje, but that’s a bridge we’ll just have to cross when we come to it. I feel privileged and delighted to have experienced the bounty of this wonderful restaurant during the change of seasons.

Note also that both Richard Gorelick from The Baltimore Sun and Tom Sietsema from The Washington Post have reviewed Woodberry Kitchen within the past week. Between the three of us, there is much more agreement than disagreement.

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