Friday, November 14, 2014

B&O Brasserie's New Menu is Both Exotic and Familiar

The menu at B&O Brasserie has seen an evolution over the years as each chef has brought with him a slightly different style of cuisine. The newest addition to the restaurant's kitchen is executive chef Mike Ransom, a native of Michigan who has worked in Chicago and San Francisco before coming to Baltimore.

The Minx and I were invited to a media dinner to sample the latest incarnation of B&O's fare. At first glance, the new menu might make you think the dishes are fairly straight-forward, but Chef Mike Ransom brings a great deal of finesse and creativity to standard favorites. The result is a dining experience that is at once familiar and unlike anything you've ever eaten before.

One of Chef Ransom's goals was to integrate the restaurant with the bar. To that effect, he's created food that pairs well with the extraordinary selection of specialty cocktails on head bartender Brendan Dorr's drink menu. I started with The Galavanter and the Minx chose the Grove Tipple. The Glavanter is an exotic blend of rye, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit bitters, and dry vermouth that the Minx described as tasting like the "men's department at Bergdorf Goodman's." She meant that in a good way. Her Grove Tipple--another mad scientist's concoction of pear brandy, amaro, apple butter, lemon, ginger, and sage--was pleasantly fruity and lightly sweet. We enjoyed our drinks with a selection of olives and spiced nuts.

Chef Ransom was particularly eager for us to try some of the new appetizers, and the first to arrive at our table was sweet potato gnocchi. Talk about Thanksgiving on a plate! I was concerned that the sweet potato would be too sweet, but incorporating it into gnocchi dough mitigated any cloying quality. It was slightly sweet and hearty with the fall-ish quality of sage and a nice crunch thanks to pumpkin seeds.

Next up was pastrami-cured salmon, served with a savory beet pickle, slivers of cured orange rind, a dill raita, and rye crisps. If you pile a little bit of each element onto a rye crisp, the combination is a balanced bite of tangy, spicy, and crunchy, with that bite of orange bringing all of the flavors together. The Minx, who really doesn't appreciate the texture of raw or cured salmon, loved it in this application, which, while not really tasting like pastrami, was probably her favorite dish of the evening.

Calamari is an appetizer staple and many places do not do the poor squids justice. Not so at B&O where theirs is slow cooked until it is meltingly tender and served with confit tomato and preserved lemon. The garlicky chile broth had Asian overtones; what we thought might be coconut milk was, according to chef Ransom, a yuzu compound butter. You definitely need the toasted baguette to soak up all of that delicious sauce.

The red-eye riblets, coffee-brined and coated in a bourbon barbeque sauce, are more refined than the typical sweet-sauced baby backs. A kimchee with Asian pear and honeycrisp apple added the proper amount of tang to cut the richness of the meat and sauce.

After four appetizers, we were ready to move onto our entrees, but Chef Ransom offered a palate cleanser in the form of a beet salad. Nice balance was at play here with the slightly sweet beets and orange peel paired with briny cerignola olives and a light dusting of manchego cheese. A beet puree vinaigrette, mizuna greens, and some crunchy sunflower seeds round out the dish.

Onto the entrees, starting with a short rib pot roast. As you would expect from a pot roast, the meat was delectably fork tender, with a richly flavored jus. The bed of buttermilk mashed potatoes underneath was creamy, yet not without some texture. Baby turnips, beets, and carrots added a pleasant earthiness in keeping with a fall dish.

Equally toothsome was the braised pork shoulder with gigante beans and rapini in an aleppo-mustard jus. The texture of the pork reminded us of the riblets, albeit without the bone. The rapini, which had been charred, offered an unusual bitter element to the rich, slightly sweet, sauce and creamy beans.

The big surprise of the night for me was the Bay cassoulet, featuring fresh flounder, squid, and mussels. In addition to the traditional white beans, there was a bit of fennel, and the broth contained similar elements to those in the braised calamari we ate earlier. Cassoulets can sometimes be heavy, but using seafood as the protein and adding citrus to the broth brought a welcomed lightness to the dish.

Dessert is usually not on our minds after such a large meal, but we couldn't turn away the pear pecan tart. The sweet fruit, presented in a light, crisp crust, was topped with whipped creme fraiche and the surprise of sweet and chewy candied fennel.

We were also served a brioche toast with boozy bourbon-macerated dates and almond praline ice cream. A touch of salt really made the dish.

Many times we have encountered menus that push the boundaries of experimentation while neglecting the fundamental elements that make a meal satisfying. We've also eaten in restaurants that stick to classic cuisine to the point where any sense of specialness is lost. Chef Mike Ransom has found that perfect balance between accessible menu options and those that take you to places outside your normal expectations. We can't wait to see what new surprises Chef Ransom will offer in the future.

B&O American Brasserie on Urbanspoon

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