If you read my latest blog post then you're probably wondering why I'm posting a restaurant review when I just said I wasn't really going to post restaurant reviews anymore. Well, I'd like to think this is less of a review and more of a requiem or we could just call it...why can't we have nice things?
In other words, why can't Baltimore sustain a restaurant like Arômes?
Just to recap, Chef Steve Monnier's quaint little eatery on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden is closing on November 11 and the Chef and his team will be moving to a new establishment downtown with a new partner. The new restaurant will be more of a French bistro, in the style of Le Diplomate in Washington, DC, and while there will be a tasting room where Chef Steve can exhibit his skill and creativity. it won't be the same as the cozy experience that was Arômes.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a story of a restaurant that had fallen on hard times and had to shutter it's doors. I do think Chef Monnier (and his wife!) did all they could to keep Arômes going but he eventually made the smart decision for both himself and his staff to go with a partner that could help smooth out the financial difficulties of an industry that runs on razor thin margins. I am not lamenting the loss of Chef Monnier because he's moving on to something more secure and better. My question, rather, is why can't a supposedly up-and-coming food city like Baltimore keep a place like Arômes around where the Chef doesn't have to look for more stable ground.
If you didn't know, Arômes is a French fine dining (for lack of a better word) concept set in a rustic/industrial/minimalist converted row home in one of the hippest part of Baltimore. It's the kind of restaurant that you would find in a trending neighborhood in any city like Fishtown in Philadelphia or Shaw in Washington, DC or Brooklyn in NYC (I know those aren't the greatest examples since those aren't necessarily undiscovered gems anymore but you get my gist...I hope). It's small (couldn't have been more than 50 seats), independent and strives to push the boundaries of creativity. The food is skillfully and classically prepared but also clearly made by a chef who wanted to show the world something different.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of successful restaurants in Baltimore. There are an abundance that can give Charm City residents an upscale meal, across most cuisines, that deliver beautiful plates, have outstanding service and indulgent ingredients. But, Arômes was different. It was creative, it doesn't rely solely on expensive ingredients to deliver on the promise of a meal but rather the chef elevates the food to pleasantly exceed your expectations.
Before the eye-rolling commences and I understand that I'm being effusive, I will say that I didn't find nirvana in an exposed brick building in Hampden. Are there holes in the food? Absolutely, but Michelin doesn't live in Baltimore so almost every restaurant in the city has inconsistencies. Is having only a prix fixe menu a bit rigid (they did have a la carte for the briefest of moments)? Maybe, but I feel like the $65 per person price is pretty reasonable for the type of meal you get. Is it the kind of place you go to every week? Hardly and admittedly I've only been to there twice in the past year. But, there are always restaurants which are deemed more of an event rather than a weekly go-to and those restaurants thrive here too.
I mean look at the meal I just had there (and I know I promised not to do reviews but this will be different, I promise). First course (pics are below), squash en brioche, date paste and squash dressing. Just look at that thing. It looks almost like a wellington but there's no meat! Looks like the world's best gravy yet no meat! Second course, roasted cabbage, sage, beef fat and jalapeno sauce. Dude just roasted a piece of cabbage with some beef grease and made it taste like a steak. Just playful and creative AF. Third course, a Chanterelle dumpling in a Chinese black tea broth. Just a perfect little bite that let the mushroom shine through. Sometimes less is more. Fourth course, celeriac tagliatelle with lobster sauce. So, I think he went a bit crazy with the foam but making a tagliatelle out of that celeriac was brilliant. Fifth course, grilled duck breast with slow roasted beets. Just a classic dish. That skin is super crispy but don't sleep on that beet that looks like a nugget of charcoal. Sixth course, almond macaron, persimmon cream and nocino caramel. Each individual component was tasty but once you mix in that nocino caramel, this quickly became one of my favorite desserts in a long time.
My point is, the food is beautiful, it's skillfully done and has some great playfulness when it comes to presenting food. Also, I'm not saying that there aren't successful, small, independent restaurants in Baltimore that are slinging some great, skillful and creative food. Arômes, though, was different. It's the type of restaurant that expands the boundaries of what kind of food a city has to offer. It is the kind of place that is needed when you discuss the quality of the food spectrum in Baltimore. Baltimore has a bevy of good restaurants. But, losing something like Arômes makes me wonder where Baltimore really is as a food city. I'll miss you Arômes but hopefully some of that magic will carry over to Chef Steve's new venture downtown.
Arômes, 3520 Chestnut Avenue, Hampden, MD 21211, 410.235.0035