I got this e-mail the other day:
Congratulations! Your e-mail has been selected as the PRIZE winner of 2,000,000.00 in Promotion Held September, 2012 in Europe.
Umm....wait. I did get that e-mail and usually I'd be stoked about winning 2 million of something but I'm still trying to help an African prince reclaim his fortune. The e-mail I wanted to show you was this:
Newly opened WEST Kitchen & Tavern at Loews Annapolis invites you to join us for an exclusive, small group media dinner to celebrate a fresh dining experience, Wednesday September 5th, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Featuring a fresh herb garden, plentiful raw bar, hearth oven and expo kitchen, Chef Kevin Relf's WEST Kitchen & Tavern promises a classic shore tavern atmosphere with a comfortable ambiance suitable for all occasions.
To tease your tastebuds, WEST Kitchen & Tavern will be offering menu items such as Mini Lobster Rolls, Rock Fish, Garlic and Herb Shmeared Tavern Steak, Ricotta and Orange Zeppoles and Cherries and Chocolate.
SHUT THE FRONT DOOR. My first thought was that someone read my blog and not only that, they read enough of it in order to find an e-mail address. My next thought was that it was a case of mistaken identity. So, I wrote back politely accepting the invitation but making it clear that they may have sent the e-mail in error to me and I would totally understand if they passed me over for someone else like, you know, a real member of the media. They responded with this:
No accident, we like your blog and would love for you to attend :)
SHUT THE FRONT DOOR. I guess I'm going to a media dinner. Now, I'm still new to all of this and I had no idea what a media dinner was. From my little understanding, it was a introductory dinner to a brand new restaurant. Everything was complimentary, even the parking (though there was no one taking tickets on the way out and the gate was up so I'll call that a wash). So, I guess this is where I have to disclose that I'm writing a post about a restaurant that gave me a complimentary experience since it may slant my point of view...what? WHAT? I'm still new at this blogging thing so I'm still used to keeping this simple. Here's what I know: Someone read my blog, someone liked what they read, I got invited to try some food at a cool, new restaurant, and I didn't have to pay for it. As for whether or not that would bias my opinion....yeah. No.
The group who came to dinner was a nice mix of people. From the restaurant, there was both the hotel and restaurant GM; a couple of marketing directors; and the chef would come to the table periodically. There were a few locals including a woman from the Convention and Visitors Bureau who was really nice and kept asking for advice about a blog she was about to start. I found that both ironic and scary that someone was asking for advice FROM me. There were two other blog writers there, Johnna from Johnna Knows Good Food and Sarah from Food and Frederick. I was familiar with both their blogs (which are both more developed than mine and tells me I have a long way to go) but I don't think you really know what awkward is until you say, "hi, I've read your blog before". There's just isn't any good follow-up to that sentence. Also, do you know how surreal it is to eat a meal when half the table is snapping pictures? I know I do it all the time but this was pretty surreal. Also, they had business cards. Are we supposed to have business cards? Why does no one tell me these things?
The process was that they brought out a bunch of appetizers to share along with each person receiving one of their house made soda concoctions. We got to pick our choice of entree and then they brought out a variety of desserts. Along the way, the chef would come out and explain the dishes, the ideas behind them and answer any questions. It looked like he was a relatively young chef who was still new to this whole marketing dinner thing. I asked a few questions since I am genuinely interested about how the food came about and he was polite, knowledgeable and kept a cool demeanor to what may or may not have been dumba$$ questions. While I was asking him some questions, all I could think was he's going to say, "who the f*ck are you asking me questions about my food. you write a thing on the interwebs, sit down and just eat". Yeah. That.
The first thing we got to try was one of their homemade cobblestone sodas. I had the melon one and they siphoned the soda (something to do with a Carbon Dioxide canister and fizz, lots of fizz) at table side as you sat down so you could see the soda being made in front of you. The drink was light, refreshing and a great way to cleanse your palate (which I needed later). In addition, I had a couple of Johnny Hawkins which was gin, grapefruit, basil, tonic and sea salt cocktail. I liked the jumble of flavors that came together in the drink from the slight bitterness of the grapefruit to the kick from the basil and the occasionally saltiness when you tasted the sea salt that was just below the rim of the glass.
For appetizers, they brought out the heirloom tomato and beef tenderloin pizzas; and the heirloom tomato salad. I didn't get a chance to try the heirloom tomato pizza but it looked great with the array of tomatoes, cheese and basil. I must have been talking or wasn't really paying attention when the chef described the beef tenderloin pizza because I never actually heard the words "beef tenderloin" (I had to ask what it was after). I probably also need new glasses because even to the point when the piece of pizza hit my plate, I thought it was just a mushroom pizza. The color on the beef was so great (don't mention that it was also pink, let's just move on) that I just thought it was a morel or something. When I bit into it, I was expecting something else but was pleasantly surprised to discover the beef. The thin crust pizza also included taleggio, great mild melting cheese; rosemary; and caramelized onions. I didn't get the onions too much but the sharpness of the rosemary was a great compliment to the richness of both the cheese and the beef. I only got a few dregs of the heirloom tomato salad but I've always enjoyed the combination of heirlooms and watermelon and this delivered that combination quite well.
After the apps, they brought out Lester Jones, who's apparently somewhat of a local celebrity for his oyster shucking abilities. He's this amiable looking guy in his 50s or 60s who brought us two trays of great looking Chesapeake oysters. They were fresh and hearty with a great salinity and while they brought out a couple of sauces, these oysters didn't seem to warrant anything else except a hint of lemon.
Since the restaurant is in Maryland and near the water, I wanted to try something kind of unique to the state so I eyed up the rockfish for my entree. Unfortunately, everyone around me was ordering it also and I at least wanted to see something different. The waitress recommended the Garlic & Herb Shmeared Tavern Steak so I got that primarily because of the recommendation but also because I like to order things that have made-up words. The dish also came with garlic fries, a little watercress salad and demi-glace. The fries had that nice garlicky salty flavor and I didn't finish them because I getting full and wanted to keep eating the steak. The unfortunate part is that the chef asked me how I liked the fries and I said they were great but somehow I don't think he believed me since I suspect he knew I didn't finish them which made feel about 10 inches tall. Damn you Catholic school guilt. I didn't quite touch the salad but I normally never do.
Now to the steak. Most of my questions to the staff revolved around the steak. It was a nice, thick slab of meat about as thick as a normal filet but twice as large. When you cut into it, the texture was more stringy like you would see in a skirt or hangar steak yet it was much thicker than those cuts. I asked waitress what cut it was and she didn't know but brought back someone who did. It turns out that it's a cut called teres major which seems to be found on the back shoulder area of the cow. The unfortunate part is my first bite was into a big chunk of burnt garlic and I really needed to drink lots of the soda to reset my palate. At one point, I was thinking that maybe I don't have to write anything since I wasn't really enjoying the dish initially. Luckily, I recovered and there were no more big chunks of garlic to bite into. The steak was a touch on the tough side but still moist and juicy despite very little fat content which, I guess, can be attributed to the herb & garlic shmear. The flavors were spot on, so much so that I may make it a point to find out where to get a teres major from now on. The chef said that he was told about the cut from the other chef in the hotel restaurant and that it's a pretty popular in Europe and pretty economical..for now.
For dessert they brought out some ricotta & orange zeppoles with a berry sauce, cherries with three different kinds of dipping chocolates, and a bread pudding with a bourbon caramel and mint hard sauce. I feel like I've been eating a ton of doughnuts lately and while these zeppoles were quite good and well made, it wasn't different from all the other pieces of fried dough that I've tried over the past few months. I'm also not a big fan of dipping any type of fruit into chocolate. There was nothing wrong with this dessert, I just don't prefer something like that. The bread pudding, however, is something I would come back for. The mint hard sauce is mint mixed in butter and then frozen. It's placed on the bread pudding which is then covered with the bourbon caramel. The bread pudding was surprisingly light and didn't have that cloying syrupy texture that you would expect. I usually don't like bourbon infused anything but this caramel muted the bourbon flavors where they were complimentary rather than overwhelming. The mint sauce gave it yet another layer of flavor and added some brightness to the rich dessert. If you order nothing else from West, get two of these.
I had a long talk with the hotel GM after the meal and he said that they wanted to build a restaurant that happened to be located in a hotel but wasn't a hotel restaurant and I thought that was a good description of West (which by the way, is also the name of my favorite restaurant in Vancouver). The restaurant certainly doesn't resemble most hotel restaurant with it's casual setting and rustic menu. They even put outlets at every booth and table so that it would cater to those who want to set up a laptop or charge a cell phone. I still think that may take away from the dining experience but I understand why they'd want to cater to people who'd want to do that.
I think the restaurant has only really been open just over a month and the chef is new, the menu is new and while their goal is to make it a destination restaurant, I'm inclined to think it will take a little while before that happens. While all the food was well crafted and hit all the right notes, it doesn't feel adventurous or eclectic enough to make the restaurant a place to visit from DC or Baltimore. The chef is a graduate of both the CIA and Cornell, so I just think it's a matter of time before he starts to play it less safe and branches out. I did enjoy it enough where I'm going to make it a point to come back and try out a meal (on my dime) in about a month when the restaurant won't feel so new anymore.
This post went on longer than I expected but there were lots of new experiences for me during the visit to West. I never realized that a 'media' dinner was thing. I met bloggers who I've only known on the internet. I tried out a new restaurant and had access to the people who put a lot of hard work into making it happen. All in all, I think a quote from Notting Hill sums up my experience, it was "surreal but nice". West seems to have all the right ingredients for success: it's in a great space, Annapolis is a wonderful little town, and the food is spot on. Also, after having met the people behind the restaurant, you realize how much effort it takes to make these things go. It also makes you wish for their success so good luck to all the staff at West, I'll be rooting from the sidelines and hopefully I'll see you all again soon.
Here's another take on the restaurant from one of the other bloggers present.
126 West Street, Annapolis, MD 21401, 410.263.777, www.annapoliswestkt.com