Um. So, I did say that I really wasn't going to do any more restaurant reviews and yet here I am again. I guess what I really meant is that I will no longer be doing standard restaurant reviews. There will be references to what I thought of the food and/or drink but it won't necessarily be a review/recommendation. For instance, I'm writing about Rye Street Tavern today because it's one of two new restaurants plunked down in Baltimore (with help from Kevin Plank) by a famous and Michelin-starred New York City Chef, Andrew Carmellini.
For those of you not familiar with Chef Carmellini, he is a NYC based chef with a veritable restaurant empire mainly in the Big Apple. Before his current gigs, he earned a Michelin Star at A Voce (recently just closed) on Madison Square Park. He's currently heading the NoHO Hospitality Group and their list of restaurants are some of NYC's most popular for both food and pretty people. Places like Locanda Verde, Little Park, Lafayette, Bar Primi, Joe's Pub, The Dutch, Leuca, etc...sling both great food and great service. On top of that, Carmellni won two James Beard Awards for his work at Cafe Boulud (which was one of my favorite restaurant experiences when I first moved to NYC) in the early 2000's. Locanda Verde was nominated for the JBF Best New Restaurant in 2010 and his restaurants have received 2 and 3 star ratings from the New York Times.
Now, this post isn't a fluff piece for Andrew Carmellini. I'm mentioning his bona fides because, as someone who loves food, it was tremendously exciting to me that a bad ass NYC chef was coming to Baltimore and putting up not one, but two restaurants. Additionally, not just random restaurants but restaurants with significant financial backing. This seems like the recipe for some creative, cutting-edge and inventive cooking coming to Baltimore right? Not that there isn't some of that already here but you gotta be excited by a chef who cut his teeth in the hyper-competitive NYC food scene.
The restaurant, itself, is absolutely gorgeous. It's set right on the water in Port Covington right beside the Sagamore Spirit distillery. When we (I took my niece for her birthday) walked up, there were people sitting around a table on the lawn drinking some wine and looking out on the horizon. The interior is modern and sleek with a lot of rich, dark, and soft hues. The front of the house staff was impeccably polite and paid attention to every detail as you would expect at a place that looks like this. We got lucky with a table but we walked in a little bit after service had started and while they reserve some tables for walk-ins, the night was pretty much packed with reservations.
We started with a Blue Crab Cocktail with a bloody mary dressing and Fried Popcorn Softshell clams with shishito peppers & eastern shore tartar sauce. Entrees included bacon -wrapped rainbow trout and "Sagamore Old Fashioned" Ribs with Tony's Slaw. For dessert, it had to be Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, which is made to order so expect to wait about 10 to 15 minutes for it come out. All the food hit all the right notes, chunky crab meat, full fatty clam bellies, wrapping things in bacon is always good, the ribs were sweet & tangy, and that cake is well worth the wait. Also, can't forget my Old Pal...cocktail that is. Sagamore Spirit Rye, St. George Bruto Americano, and VYA Dry Vermouth.
I didn't necessarily have a problem with food. Like I said, it hit all the right notes, tasted good and my niece was happy with the whole experience. What I think I had difficulty with is the menu or rather the expectations for the menu considering how much I raved about him earlier in this post. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad menu. It has a lot of nods to Maryland and has some attractive staples like a burger, fried chicken, a big old steak, a raw seafood tower, and assorted seafood bakes. You'd be hard pressed to find something you wouldn't find tasty. But, you would find it difficult to find something that pushes the culinary envelope or is creatively exciting.
Now, before you think this is a rip on Chef Carmellini. It's not. Let's make that clear. I'm guessing that before such a restaurant like Rye Street is finished, there is a ton of market research done about the area, potential clientele and what kind of food would be most profitable. I'm guessing some of the factors considered were: it had to be a destination kind of restaurant because it's a little out of the way, it had to have deep ties to Maryland cuisine, it had to incorporate Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey and it had to be fancy AF (because. you know. Kevin Plank). After all this was done, my concern is that all the experienced restaurant people, all the market research, all the other data points they had, it told them this is what would work best in Baltimore.
If that is the case (and my spidey sense tells me it is because...well...the menu), why would you hire a Michelin starred chef (yes, I know stars go to restaurants but chefs drive the stars)? I know there is some different and exciting food out there in Baltimore but it's fascinating that when an outsider jumps into the fray, this is what they think of Baltimore and it's restaurant going crowd. Is this true? If it is, does this mean the chances of Baltimore really embracing a cutting edge food culture, are really slim? Am I just being a food snob and just accept the heart of Baltimore's meat & potatoes palate? At the end of the day, I could be wrong so I'll leave this post with a question. Is this what the rest of the world really think about Baltimore's tastes and will it ever change?
Rye Street Tavern, 225 East Cromwell Street, Baltimore, MD 21230, 443.662.8000