Food for All Moods: Baltimore's More than Crab (Though Ours Is Best)
By Tamar Alexia Fleishman
Baltimore Local Expert
Baltimore is a city where the hip and the high society mix freely. Interesting cuisine is being served in places with a decidedly casual feel, though we still have special occasion dining, too. There are several restaurants that have two sides to their interiors, allowing different experiences to take place. Baltimore has access to the finest bounty in the nation: seafood such as Maryland Blue crab, cod, striped bass that we call "rockfish", trout from our nearby mountains, as well as tomatoes, heirloom corn, peaches, cantaloupe and even obscure hot peppers. Maybe surprisingly to some, Baltimore is also a city where you can also get a world-class steak.
Baltimore has several places that other cities call "restaurant row". The major streets, the Harbor, Harbor East, the neighborhoods have stretches where you'll discover restaurant after restaurant. Some people will like having wide selection, while others will try them all in a progressive dinner.
The region is home to different ethnic groups -- both in the city and in the suburbs -- creating a melting pot of flavors.
With a vibrant professional economy, there are definitely upscale options, yet this is a city with a blue collar heritage that appreciates value in all things.
"Pit Beef" -- smoked, thinly sliced beef on a Kaiser roll with raw onion as a garnish is a Baltimore thing -- even Anthony Bourdain said so! But he didn't go to the right place. Many pit beef stands use gas to cook, resulting in a residual lighter fluid flavor. Others never know how to achieve different levels of doneness: no rare! Beefalo Bob's does pit beef, ham, turkey, as well as pulled pork and other forms of 'cue. Their hickory wood-smoked meats are succulent, the portions enormous. Pit beef (well-done) ends are enjoying a culinary moment all on their own; Beefalo Bob's has them as an appetizer. A foodie without tons of cash can really enjoy himself here. Many pit beef stands are outdoors only with limited hours, but Beefalo Bob's is a full-service sports bar. (410-360-3500)
Pho Towson & Bar
There are lots of places to get Vietnamese pho in the metro area, but this restaurant does it outstandingly, plus has many more strengths, too. The pho itself is in a rich, well-developed and slow-cooked broth. They're generous with meats and have the option of adding even more. Plus, they always give a generous amount of the freshest garnishes, like sliced onion, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts and lime. Craving something a little more solid? "Salted Shrimps", one of their appetizers, are a generous portion of fried shrimp with the head on. Try it, you'll like it! Pho Towson & Bar also has quite the unusual cocktail list, developed from exotic locales around the globe. (410-832-2788)
Corner Charcuterie Bar
This restaurant started as BYOB, while later a charcuterie bar opened around the corner. While both sides now have a liquor license, they still have their distinctions. The Corner definitely requires reservations and is medium-casual. Cuisine is determined by their Belgian chef founder, who also incorporates exotic wild game and offal. "The Other Corner" has a vibe like you were invited to a friend's private cabin in the woods; it's fun to sit at the bar. Both sides have terrific promotions. The Corner offers a 3 course pre-fixe on Mondays for $25. The Other Corner has a $20 dinner special that includes a glass of wine or beer, a salad or soup and the special entrée of the day. (443-869-5075)
Miss Shirley's -- with 3 metro locations -- is like a psychedelic kaleidoscope take on Southern brunch. Presentations are gloriously over the top and portions are huge. If one savory garnish is great with a Bloody Mary, why not 6, including a crab claw or slice of jalapeno smoked bacon? Traditional low-country ingredients, like benne seeds, meet the best of the Chesapeake Bay. Whether your tastes run to breakfast items like eggs Benedict or hearty lunch fare like a Hot Brown, inventive lemonades or sizeable cocktails, you're covered. If you're figure conscious, they have a special menu for all the fun without the guilt. Right now, they've brought back items for their 10th anniversary. (410-889-5272)
Costas Inn has its own take on seasoning for steamed crabs: they don't just throw a bunch of Old Bay and black pepper on them. It has a distinct sweetness to it -- perhaps some toasted onion in there. It's been acclaimed by all kinds of celebrities and food authors, including David Rosengarten and the folks on the Today show. In the mood for something to start with (or instead of crabs)? Their oysters Oysters Rockefeller are truly must-get. Run! They do a twist on the Pernod sauce with Amaretto. This lends a sweetness to the already sweet-fresh oysters that's perfect. They're rich, the recipe doesn't mask the seafood and the oysters are HUGE. You could definitely order the 5 oyster size (also available in 3 oyster size portion) for your lunch or light-ish dinner and be completely satisfied. Not to mention happy! (410-365-0145)
Pazo has had a massive culinary change from Spanish tapas to Southern Italian small plates, but the pumpkin seed crispy snacks are still there! The dishes are as authentic as can be: a mild house-made ricotta timbale with fresh micro-greens is just like it would be served in places like Matera. Mussels al Forno give your palette new excitement beyond the ubiquitous wine-garlic-lemon treatment. House-made gourmet pizzas, starters and half-portions of pasta are all sized to allow you to explore more of the menu. Similarly, glasses of wine are also offered in two different pours. Wine expert Tony Foreman is also an owner of Pazo, so the selections and staff advice are top-notch. (410-534-7296)
It's fitting that this Harbor East restaurant is named for the Italian word for "wild boar": it's one of the city's finest places to find nose-to-tail cuisine and wild game, done Northern and Piedmont Italian style. You'll trust Chef Julian Marucci with his more exotic offerings after experiencing the perfection of his Black Bass, pan roasted duck, etc. Regulars know that his rabbit is one of the best you'll ever eat. Even desserts are wildly creative, including parsnip cheesecake, blue cheese gelato, spiced beet cake. The restaurant has two distinct sides: a fine dining, dressy Osteria and the casual (feel free to wear jeans or shorts as you munch on snacks of hand-cut charcuterie and wine) Enoteca. (410-547-8282)
Aldo's is considered by far and away the most gourmet restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy. Family owned, Chef and son Sergio Vitale is a true foodie. He travels the world, checks out different restaurants, sources the very best in meats and local produce. Vitale is insistent on not drowning their natural goodness in butter and cream. Not all beef carpaccios are created equal: Aldo's excels from the traditional with the addition of tonnato sauce, a mayo with tuna flavors! It's a surprisingly tasty pairing with beef. Apparently, it also fits into the paleo diet, if that's your thing. The interior of this classic Baltimore row home has been transformed to resemble an outdoor Italian restaurant, complete with sidewalk . . . but the "interior" tables are comfier and more private. (410-727-0700)
The Prime Rib
Washingtonian magazine once had an article about the difficulty of obtaining and aging the finest of meats and it turns out that The Prime Rib has some of the best in the country. Big, thick, juicy and simply seasoned, the meat takes center stage. It's hard to stray away from such a masterpiece, but their lamb, soft-shelled crabs and dry aged USDA Prime NY Strip are all also excellent. This is the original of three restaurants up and down the East Coast; it opened in 1965. It's modeled after the great 1940's steakhouses in New York, with live jazz combo every night, black walls adorned with fine art. Servers are in tuxedos. While men are no longer required to wear jacket and tie, many do: this is a special occasion restaurant where celebrities, politicians and people getting engaged celebrate. (410-539-1804)
Antrim 1844 Smokehouse restaurant
The finest dining experience in the Baltimore metro region is without question Taneytown's Antrim 1844 Smokehouse. Pulling up to the historic plantation mansion, every aspect is special. Dinner guests spend a half hour in the parlor, being served passed hors d'oeuvres and the cocktail or wine of their choice. It's like a private party! Then, you are led downstairs to the original smokehouse decorated with portraits of Civil War generals. Antrim is only 15 minutes away from Gettysburg, after all. Chef Spencer Wolff is new at the helm, taking the menu in the direction of Contemporary American cuisine. With the melting pot that America is, that promises to have lots of potential. Dinners are prix-fixe 6 courses that you can pair with wines. Their wine collection is known to be one of the best on the East Coast. For a $400 wine purchase, you can dine in the wine cellar. (410-756-6812)
About Tamar Alexia Fleishman
It takes a Renaissance woman to cover cool, shocking, tasty and thought-provoking things. Tamar was a professional violinist, studying with Daniel Heifetz at Peabody Conservatory, serving as Principal Second with Annapolis Symphony. She earned her BA in Political Science from Goucher, her JD from the University of Baltimore and is a member of the Maryland Bar. She’s appeared on TV with Bill Maher, Greta Van Susteren and Peter Frampton. A foodie, she’s judged the Roadkill Cookoff, the International Water Tasting Fest, the Mason-Dixon Chef Tournament. Tamar’s a Kentucky Colonel, a beauty pageant winner and managed Southern rock and alt-country bands.
Read more about Tamar Alexia Fleishman here.