Woodberry Tavern thinks big in a small space in Baltimore

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My mantra throughout the pandemic: Never assume.

Never assume a restaurant will be open on a Monday or Tuesday. Never assume you can walk into a restaurant without a reservation, even if it’s 5:30 p.m. Never assume that a restaurant you loved before the world turned upside down has turned into something else since your last date.

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I had a lump in my throat as my companions and I turned onto the road to the beloved Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. The lights were on in the large dining room barn, but there was no one inside. The front door was open (phew!), but the staff signs were absent (uh oh!) even though we were on time for a recent Sunday night reservation.

Did I show up on the wrong date?

My question was answered when a host came out of a side room near the entrance and informed us that his team was still meeting and we would be ushered inside in a few moments.

“We turned the restaurant into an event space and the event space into a restaurant,” says Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef of a dining destination I’ve always considered the Chez Panisse of the Mid-Atlantic. In a phone conversation after my last visit, he said the pandemic had allowed him to rethink his view, of how customers ordered in the busy multi-story dining room, a former factory – the format menu old poster – how employees were paid.

A $50 Manhattan? Welcome to the era of “guiltless pleasure”.

Woodberry Tavern, replacing a former private room, is a far more intimate dining experience than the old Woodberry Kitchen, its tables now neatly laid out and party-ready, its signature wood-burning oven missing from the picture. In the tavern, knotty wooden panels punctuate the high brick walls and amber votives cast a warm glow. Reservations are required for the dining room, which seats just 22, but not for the cozy bar, although all six stools were occupied within minutes of opening during my visit.

Gjerde, famous for sourcing ingredients nearby, says he’s relaxed some of his earlier precepts. “It’s hard to tell someone who’s booked a wedding here that they can’t get lime for their gin and tonic.” Still, the restaurant continues to sweat the details, right down to the hand-harvested salt it buys from JQ Dickinson Salt-Works in West Virginia.

Diners who long for the days when free bread baskets were the norm in many restaurants will be bowled over by the welcome Woodberry Tavern, delivered on a handsome walnut tray custom-crafted by a former bartender.

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“Just a thank you for coming tonight,” a server says as he introduces the batch: fennel salami from Loudoun County, Virginia, Gouda from Pennsylvania, pickles that get their punch from premium Keepwell vinegar, and chopsticks of cheese in puff pastry and home baked spelled bread. (Are diners supposed to order after the picnic inside? The largesse also fits in a tasty smoked trout.) Executive chef Steven Kenny, who has worked for Gjerde for nearly five years, plans to offer homemade bresaola, air-dried beef, in the near future. Premium is essentially an introduction for the restaurant, introduced in 2007, stating its commitment to local ingredients and hospitality.

It’s hard not to compare what is to what was. When he started at Woodberry Kitchen, Kenny was one of “nine cooks in an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven,” says the 32-year-old chef, from Calvert County, Maryland, whose past credits include Mintwood Place in Washington and the Bartlett. Pear Inn in Easton, both now closed. At the tavern, he is one of “three people who use a stove” and a charcoal grill, out of sight of their audience.

The script may be smaller, but the choices are imaginative. Suffering from sweet potato soup fatigue? The tavern’s bisque rekindles the passion with a mashed white sweet potato, cream, onions and garlic, one side of which seems to float an island of crab, chervil and crushed walnuts, reminiscent of pecans. Welsh rarebit – toast with cheese sauce – also gets the glamorous treatment. When diners cut into a “vase” of toasted spelled bread covered in mustard beer cheese, a boiled egg and ham make surprise appearances.

I’ve lost track of how much beef tartare I’ve eaten over the past few years, so many restaurants serve the dish, which is a convenient way for chefs to use steak and other toppings . Woodberry Tavern is jumping on the bandwagon with a version that’s prepared for diners to see. But the kitchen also offers a vegetarian version, replacing the meat with brilliant carrots from Kyoto. Seasoned with bay leaf, white soy and cilantro, ground-to-order carrots taste as crisp as they look. A puddle of lemony onion puree on the side adds a nice flavor, as do the pickled potato chips that double as balls.

“Oyster Service” should be mandatory for seafood lovers. Ruby salts from Virginia’s lower east coast are featured fried with a rousing ramp tartar sauce; roasted with cheese, garlic and the restaurant’s trademark snake oil, a hot sauce fueled with local fish chilies; and over ice, brightened up with Meyer lemon and chilli crisp. The spectacle rivals that of the reception platter, with oysters presented in cast iron containers on a wooden slab.

Brined in buttermilk before frying, the chicken is very good, if overshadowed by fluffy ricotta balls, puffed up with homemade onion jam, fresh thyme and grated nutmeg and tucked among fleshy mushrooms in his bowl. Schnitzels will appreciate the tender, puffy pork version, its richness foiled with mustard cream.

The meal’s only sign of yield was miso-roasted rockfish layered over pea shoots, diced potatoes and steamed clams. The combination tasted pallid compared to the other starters.

The appearance of a candle signals the imminent arrival of baked, beehive-shaped Alaska, constructed with ginger cake and cranberry ice cream, and splashed with rum before the light show. Again in vogue, Baked Alaska is also the “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” of the desserts. Watch out, however, for the Valrhona chocolate tart, set in a thin, buttery crust and topped with a nice scoop of morello cherry ice cream.

The invoice arrives with a 23% service charge added and the explanation that it is “used to provide fair and consistent wages and benefits to all employees.” I like not having to do math after a meal and I like seeing people get paid for a job well done.

Woodberry Tavern is a smaller, quieter version of the Gjerde restaurant that opened 16 years ago. But it’s no less ambitious, and that’s a reason to tune your GPS to proven DNA.

2010 Clipper Park Road, Baltimore. woodberrykitchen.com. Open for indoor dining from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: starters $15 to $19, main courses $27 to $67 (for the sirloin). Soundcheck: 75 decibels/Must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No entry barriers; ADA approved restrooms. Pandemic Protocols: Masks and vaccines are optional for staff.

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