Monday, October 17, 2011

Woodberry Kitchen

Like Cindy Wolf's Charleston, Spike Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen is touted by both local food press and foodies alike. When I read such effusive praise, I'm always very skeptical, especially since we weren't at all impressed by the one visit we paid to Charleston. We had managed to avoid dining at Woodberry Kitchen for almost four years, but thought maybe it was high time to give in to the hype.

One of the main reasons we've never eaten at Woodberry Kitchen is that every time we check the online menu, we're not tempted by any of the offerings. They all sound so boring and plain and homey. If we want chicken and dumplings or a pork chop, we're perfectly capable of doing that in our own kitchen. And if we do go out and pay $28 for chicken and biscuits, well, the thing better be singing and dancing, I don't care how local/sustainable/free range/spoon fed it is. As it happened, Mr Minx and I were looking for a place in which to celebrate our 11th anniversary. A glance at Woodberry Kitchen's online menu revealed some items we might actually be into trying, so I made a reservation. Unfortunately, by the time October 7th rolled around, the menu was once more full of ho-hum selections. We went anyway.

The restaurant itself is set in one of the many old mill buildings that line the Jones Falls in the Hampden area of Baltimore City. With exposed brick, wooden tables, and plaid-clad servers, the place tries hard to evoke a feeling of modern rusticity. Kind of like the joints run by the bearded, pickle-making hipsters in Brooklyn who have already become a modern stereotype mocked by food critics. There's nothing else quite like Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, though, so we've fallen for the image.

Not us, however.

If there's a bad table to be had in a restaurant, it's almost guaranteed that Mr Minx and I will get it. Maybe our preference to dine early gets us labeled as middle-aged or elderly rubes who won't appreciate the place and don't deserve a quieter or less-trafficked table. At Woodberry Kitchen, we clearly got the worst table in the house - a tiny one on the second floor, next to the service counter, where we were treated to the sight of servers slicing bread and packing up leftovers for two-and-one-half hours. Over my right shoulder, I could see particulate matter in the air coming from the fryers and the wood oven beneath us, and I knew that when we left the restaurant we'd be reeking of food odors. Immediately to our right, in our peripheral vision, was a line of round paper lantern-style light fixtures suspended from the ceiling. As the evening grew darker, these lights grew to have the effect of a bare lightbulb suspended from a basement ceiling. And strangely, as it got darker outside, the lights dimmed more and more until eventually we were sitting in the shadows.

It took us a while to decide what to eat. Between the stink of the fryers and the din of the music, I was irritated. Eventually, though, we were able to select a few items that seemed interesting. Because we expected small portions, we ordered both a flatbread and the "butcher's board" for starters, along with an order of wood-roasted okra.

The okra came out first. It was not a dish to convert okra-haters, those pussies who whine about the vegetable's delightfully mucilaginous texture. To me, it's more creamy than slimy, and what's more, okra tastes wonderful. WK's okra was still crisp and crunchy, with flavorful spots of char here and there, and made a good start to our meal.

Wood-roasted Richfield heirloom okra, pickled fish peppers
Soon afterward, we received the "foraged" mushroom flatbread. I don't know if the foraging was done in the wild or at the farmer's market, but the pizza-like creation was sublime. The crust was perfect - thin and chewy, the mushrooms nice and roasty, and the cabbage surprising. Forget Woodberry Kitchen - Spike Gjerde needs to open a pizza parlor. Looking down onto all of the many flatbreads arrayed on tables below our perch is all the evidence I need to declare Spike's Pizza a rousing success. (One party of six monopolized a table for about as long as we did. They ordered one dish of popcorn, some cheese and crackers, and five out of six "entrees" were $15 flatbreads. I think our dinner for two cost more than theirs.)

 Foraged mushrooms, savoy cabbage, onion, goat's cheese
With the flatbread came the WK Butcher's Board, a long plank topped with an arrangement of cured meat products. While a nice presentation, the board was longer than the table was wide, so part of it hung out over the edge of the table. The portion was generous, probably better for a party of four to share than a party of two. All of the meats were quite tasty, and I especially enjoyed the head cheese and the air-dried beef, which had a flavor reminiscent of pepperoni. The house-made pretzel sticks and pickles were also quite good.

 WK Butcher's Board - cured pork neck, black ham, pork belly, air-dried beef,
pretzels, head cheese, apricot jam, pickles, brown mustard, and assorted crackery things
Considering that the flatbread and Butcher's Board were so large, I'm rather surprised that our server didn't say anything when we also ordered entrées. Considering how long it took for our entrées to arrive, we probably could have cancelled the order. (Guess they had to kill the cow.)

I ate less than half of my Kitchen Burger and about three of the fries because I wanted to save room for dessert. The burger was fine, I suppose. Cooked perfectly to medium, the meat was juicy, but like most beef these days, it didn't taste particularly beefy. I loved the squishy sesame seed-topped bun though, which was toasted and buttered. The fries were also very good - crisp outside and soft within, like fries should be.

Kitchen Burger - house-ground chuck, lettuce, onion & pickles, fries/ raw cheddar
Mr Minx ordered steak because he was hungry and was surprised at both the generous amount of vegetables and the small amount of steak on the plate. The steak was tender, with a nicely seasoned crust, but the aggressively spicy padron pepper sauce underneath everything killed the flavor of the meat, which didn't have much of the expected "nutty" or "buttery" qualities customary to dry-aged beef.

 Liberty Delight dry-aged tavern steak - fried potatoes, green beans, tomato, padron pepper sauce
We also shared a side dish of underseasoned, slightly sandy chard.

For dessert, Mr Minx went for the C.M.P., an item touted as the "best thing he ever ate," by Charm City Cakes' Duff Goldman. The bruléed marshmallow sauce on the top was a nice touch, but it made me fear for my dental work. The hubby, on the other hand, loved it.

C.M.P.  - malt ice cream, chocolate sauce, marshmallow fluff, wet peanuts
I had a sundae as well, the "Big Whoop," consisting of pumpkin ice cream layered with a pumpkin whoopie pie, candied pecans, and bourbon caramel. I expect whoopie pies to be soft, but this one had a bit of a crunchy crust. Crunchier still were the candied pecans, both of which lent nice contrast to the melty ice cream. I loved it. (No picture, because by the time dessert arrived, it was so dark on the 2nd floor, the only parts of the sundae visible in the photos I took were the bright blobs of ice cream.)

So while the faux-rustic surroundings, poor lighting, and incredible din were less-than-pleasing to us, I have to admit that the food was pretty darn good. Hype-worthy? Maybe not. But Woodberry Kitchen is certainly busy enough not to need my opinion one way or the other to be successful. Just ask Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, who scored a much better table than we did.

Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Rd
Baltimore, MD 21211
www.woodberrykitchen.com
(410) 464-8000

Woodberry Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Posted by theminx on Minxeats.com.