Friday, February 11, 2011

Sláinte

For the past six years, Fells Point's Sláinte has been serving up Irish-inflected pub grub and earning accolades such as the City Paper's "Best Sports Bar" of 2008 and Baltimore Magazine's "Best Place for Breakfast" in 2009. While this was all well and good, owners Patrick and Katie Russell (who also own Kooper's next door) decided that what the Baltimore area really needed was a gastropub, the kind of place where the food is at least as important as--if not more than--the libations. After trips to New York to scope out famous gastropubs like The Spotted Pig and The Breslin and hiring a new chef in the form of Bill Crouse (formerly of Sotto Sopra), the Russells have upgraded their fare while still keeping the folks who just want a burger or some corned beef and cabbage happy.

While the menu looks like a pretty straightforward selection of British pub favorites, if you look closely you'll notice items like mushroom gnudi (a gnocchi-like dumpling, popularized in recent years by The Spotted Pig), poutine (the Québécois staple of gravy- and cheese curd-smothered French fries), and a Duroc pork loin with crispy spaetzle and a pink peppercorn and goat cheese sauce.

Lured by the mention of exotic game birds on Sláinte's Restaurant Week menu, Mr Minx and I had planned on trying the restaurant in late January, but with the intermittent freezing rain and otherwise generally crappy weather, we chose to stay home and avoid the ice. However, on a recent evening when the weather was cold and windy but otherwise precipitation-free, we partook of a media dinner to sample some of the items on Slainté's updated menu.

Ploughman's Platter
We were welcomed with glasses of Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay and a sampling of appetizers, including the "Ploughman's Platter" featuring smoked trout, grilled artichoke, soppressata, Roaring 40s blue cheese, tomato aspic, Merlot jelly, and apple, served with slices of toasted bread. It was a far cry from the Ploughman's lunch I had in a London pub many years ago, consisting of huge slabs of cheddar, dry bread, and a dollop of Branston pickle (a vinegary, chutney-like condiment that is an acquired taste for those not born in Blighty).  Sláinte's version would make a good lunch or light supper on its own, and would otherwise be a nice shared appetizer.

Mushroom gnudi
We were also brought platters of the addictive mushroom gnudi, fried to a crispy brown and served with brown butter, sage, and lashings of cheese. Owner Patrick Russell is a self-proclaimed "mushroom-hater" and even he had to admit that these tidbits were nothing short of delicious.

Cornflour Calamari with smoked pepper aioli and beet chips
Also sampled were PEI mussels steamed in white wine with tomato, basil, and garlic, and the spiced cornflour calamari which came with a smoked pepper aioli that had quite a nice kick to it.

Fish and Chips
After those goodies, we were brought three entrées to sample: fish and chips with a side of cole slaw; the Guinness Sunday roast; and the grilled Duroc pork loin. Chef Crouse's fish and chips were an outstanding version of the classic dish, the fish sporting a batter--made with Baltimore's own Heavy Seas lager-- so flavorful that it didn't need the usual dousing with malt vinegar or tartar sauce. The slaw, based on Chef Crouse's grandmother's recipe, was a nice light rendition, without the mayonnaise-y gloppiness that can mar this salad, and a subtle dilly tang. The pork loin's crisp spaetzel bed was a nice counterpoint to the creamy sauce and the subtly-cumin-scented pork itself. Accompanying the entrées was an unusually dry and licorice-y, but very drinkable, Cono Sur Merlot.

Duroc Pork with spaetzle
For dessert, we were brought a Jameson whiskey bread pudding and platters of piping hot zeppole, or Italian fried dough. While the bread pudding was moist and rich, the zeppole stole the show, particularly when dipped in the accompanying bowl of rich chocolate ganache.

Zeppole
Overall, the food was of high quality and we were quite pleased with everything - "well chuffed" as they might say in the UK. The favorites at our table were the gnudi, the fish and chips, the spaetzle, and the zeppole; the tender calamari was a personal favorite, particularly the smoky spicy sauce (which would be great on a burger). It was a meal I'd have been happy to have paid for, and we plan to return again very soon.

Chef Crouse says he hopes to add more gastropub-inspired dishes to the menu, and to watch for upcoming seasonal changes. After this meal, and a few years of dining on his fare at Sotto Sopra, I dare say the man can make even corned beef and cabbage taste good.

Sláinte 

1700 Thames Street
Baltimore, MD 21231
410-563-6600
Slainte Irish Pub on Urbanspoon
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