Garrison, Barracks Row

I stopped into Garrison for a very early dinner, and came away thinking that the food coming from this kitchen is upper-upper-Italic in quality, even though the restaurant isn’t necessarily shooting for anything higher than that (i.e., the dreaded “B” word), and it’s also impossible to issue that highest of ratings without several visits to a restaurant that’s at least several months old. Read on …

I wanted to sip a beer before doing, or thinking, about anything else, so my bartender, the extremely talented and promising Jessica Moyer, who studied under Gina Chersevani, and later became the Bar Manager at Toki Underground (yes, *the* Bar Manager) poured me a Numero Uno Summer Cerveza ($6) from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick – very much of a session beer with both flavor and body (these are starting to become more prevalent at area restaurants, as restaurants are starting to understand that diners want to be quenched without being hopped to death or inebriated before the meal even begins (do I sound like Rodney Dangerfield?)

Gina herself was there, helping Jessica set up, and we spotted each other and began talking. “Well, as long as my cover is blown, why don’t you make me a G&T, I said?” She dismissed my statement, and said, “How about one of my summer Gin drinks?” I didn’t even need to ask – Gina is one of “those” bartenders who you just turn yourself over to, and let her take care of you. She’s gotten better-and-better over the past ten years, and has truly become a master bartender. She also has two of the most adorable little girls you could ever want to see with little Gianna and Francesca – their pictures are absolutely delightful, and enough to make the gruffest of men break into a smile. I actually didn’t realize until just this moment that Gina didn’t charge me for the drink – that will be rectified the next time I see her – I know she doesn’t want to hear that, but I have to. I apologize for not noticing before now.

Anyway, Jessica recommended several things to me, noting that the produce is *extremely* good right now. One of them, the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($15) with burrata, vanilla, and mint, was the best tomato salad I’ve had in 2015, without any serious contender in the running. Yes, it’s that good, and if you listen to only one thing I tell you, it’s this: Go to Garrison *this week*, while this Heirloom Tomato Salad is still on the menu, and order it. I don’t think I’ve ever paid $15 for a tomato salad before, but this had at least a half-order of burrata on it, so while not “officially” a Burrata appetizer, you can get an ample portion of it with the tomatoes. Drop all plans you have, get over to Garrison this week before the salad changes, and after your first bite, remember me asking you to please tell your friends about our community. That’s the best way you can thank me, and I promise you that you’re going to want to thank me.

Per Gina’s recommendation, I ordered the Poppyseed Gougères ($7), and they were about the best gougères I’ve had in memory – nothing else being served at any restaurant compares to these – certainly not the oversized mutation at BLT Steak or even the highly touted cone at Central. There might be something lurking out there at a place like Fiola, but I doubt it. Listen up: I’m not telling you to make a special trip just for these Gougères, but seeing as though you’re going to be there anyway for the Heirloom Tomato Salad, I’m telling you: Order the Poppyseed Gougères since you’re already there. The cone is easily enough for two, but even if you’re a solo diner, order it anyway, and take home half for breakfast the next morning. They won’t survive the night, but they’ll still be more than good enough. There are two items that you should and *must* order this coming week. Let me know how they are.

I had grandiose plans to have an extended meal here, but as luck would have it, I had to leave on very short notice. However, I had already put in my order, so I changed it to go, paid my bill, and waited for it to come out. Rob Weland, who had previous come out and chatted with me (Gina and Rob both look great, by the way; I’d never met Jessica before, but she’s young and pretty enough so she looks great too), was probably miffed that he had to package up his incredible Sweet Corn Tortellini ($14 for a half-order, $23 for a full-order) with stracchino cheese and chives – likewise his Whole Roasted Eggplant ($13) with tomato, yogurt, dill, and hazelnuts. I’ll get to both dishes in a second, but even though I didn’t see Rob again, I guarantee he was more upset about the tortellini than the eggplant.

But he shouldn’t have been upset, since even though I needed to leave in a hurry, I got caught in traffic, and went to work on the pasta dish driving west on I-695. I felt terribly that this dish, which is undoubtedly plated beautifully, was forced to suffer the fate of being served in a cardboard box, to be eaten with the fingers of someone driving a car. Nevertheless, I could picture pretty much exactly how it could have been plated, and this dish was so good that even tossed down like it were an order of fries from McDonald’s, it was one of the greatest pasta dishes I’ve had in many a year. Each piece of house-made tortellini was a work of art, stuffed with corn that was grown less than one mile away, and probably picked that same day. Mixed with the stracchino cheese inside of each tortellini, it provided the perfect filling, while the whole thing sat atop a pool of fantastic chive-flecked butter (the texture of the pasta and the texture of the butter are what was undoubtedly freaking Rob out – but I got to both of them before the texture had changed, so I saw exactly what was presented, presentation aside). Each separate piece of tortellini was a work of art, and I could “dunk to taste” in that delicious pool of butter – think about it: house-made pasta, cooked to a perfect al dente; literally farm-to-table corn, ground up and mixed with spanking-fresh stracchino cheese; and a beautiful, chive-laced butter dunking sauce: each tortellini had a little concave section on top that held exactly as much butter as I desired (don’t forget, an alternate name for tortellini is ombelico, or “belly-button,”) so it was the perfect mix of summer flavors, and truly one of the great pasta dishes I’ve had in a long, long time. If this combination of flavors appeals to you even just a little bit, then this is pretty much a must-order dish. Corn, farm-fresh butter, al dente pasta containers, ridiculously fresh, stretchy cheese – it was just awesome. And let me tell you: I’ve had pieces of sashimi that were less expensive than each tortellini, and I *still* feel that these were a better value – it would require something on the order of an o-toro or just-scooped uni to have greater intrinsic value than these bites of tortellini. Do yourself a favor and get a full-order to split with your dining companion – it’s a slightly better value.

The eggplant, which was served merely warm, could have easily survived, and perhaps even improved, had it been left out overnight; but it wasn’t. This was the only dish of the evening that didn’t blow me away, and it’s due to my personal prejudice rather than any fault of the dish itself: it’s a fairly spicy dish, and nowhere on the menu does it indicate that it will be so. There’s nothing wrong with spicy eggplant (these were quite possibly North African spices), but I was a little surprised to encounter them on my first bite; once I knew what I was in for, I recalibrated my palate, and enjoyed them very much. The dish was not harmed at all by transport, but I do think that these eggplants – clearly in the ground within the past day or two – were harmed by the spicing. Their delicacy was masked, and this while this was a great “spicy dish,” it was a waste of such freshly picked eggplant to use in this type of preparation when lesser examples could have shown almost as well. Another personal prejudice is that I love yogurt with dishes like this (among other things, it tames the spice), and I would have preferred more – note that if I had eaten this dish the way I was supposed to, that is, in the restaurant, I could have simply asked for a little tub of yogurt, and they would have happily served it to me, so this was my fault as well. All this said, there are a *lot* of people out there who love spicy food (I do too, but just not at this level of refinement), and if you’re one of them, you’ll probably cherish this eggplant, as it was about as fresh and good as it could have been under the circumstances.

Do I sound like I’m impressed with Garrison? Well, if I don’t, that means I’m a terrible writer. I urge readers of this review to go *this week* and get both the heirloom tomato salad and the gougères, or at least some type of summer produce – the clock is ticking, and time is running out on the tomatoes. Rob told me, “We have a lot of work to do,” but I warned him (after having tried the tomatoes) that I was going to be telling people to get the heck in there. Right. Now. What a display of local-and-seasonal cooking! I think the crowds – which are inevitable – are only going to harm this wonderful cooking, and I hope more than hope itself that I am completely wrong about this. Go to Garrison this week.

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