Saturday, October 27, 2007

Friends & Family - Woodberry Kitchen

Wood Oven Roasted Oysters.

The Friends & Family Meal. I've heard about them, read about them, but I've never been invited to one. Until now.

Just what is this "F&F Meal" anyway? It's the meal (sometimes series of meals) that a restaurant hosts just before their official opening. It's designed to identify problem spots and work out the kinks of a new kitchen, bar, dining room and everyone working in the restaurant. The meals are comped by the house and everyone goes to town.

Last nights' Friends & Family Meal went from 5pm to 10pm. I arrived just before 9pm and the main dining room was packed with about 60 people filling the tables and crowding around the bar. The nice thing about this meal is that you know most of the people there and even though my "date" got sick and couldn't make it, there were plenty of friends to eat, drink and be merry with.

After a bit of mingling, Susan and I sat at the bar to sample the kitchens' offerings. Amy would jump in and out while handling the many details that arise when running a working restaurant and Luisa would join us a bit later.

Fried Hominy with Chile Mayo.

The menu is what's described as "Farm to Table" and the approach is a bit different. On the menu are a list of "snacks" designed to be immediate starters. Mini dishes that whet the appetite without actually being appetizers. Think of them as something instead of bread. From there, you can enjoy a variety of prepared oysters or some small cold or warm plates, or perhaps a salad. Once those smaller portions were out the way comes the supper dishes. A bit heartier and more filling.

Of course, we didn't follow the prescription. We just ordered relatively haphazardly - ordering whatever we thought was interesting.

First round: Wood Oven Roasted Oysters topped with bacon. Served on a bed of rock salt, the oysters were briny and had the taste of the ocean. Roasted just right, the oysters had a touch of heat and the bacon was pliable but crisp. Susan loved them but since I'm not a big fan of cooked oysters, I found them to be okay. Perhaps a bit too salty. Bring on the raw oysters because that's what I prefer.

Next round brought us the Fried Hominy with a chile mayonnaise dipping sauce. Reminiscent of CornNuts, the fried hominy, of course, had that rich corn flavor that was lightly fried and properly salted. The dipping sauce matched well but I found the hominy enjoyable enough that I couldn't resist eating it on its' own.

Raw Oysters, Iced on the Half Shell.

Round Three: Raw Oysters Iced on the Half Shell. Again, briny with the strong taste of ocean. As though your mouth was sucking down the ocean itself - which, for whatever reason, seemed odd to me. Perhaps it's just that I'm used to an oyster without such a strong connection to its' origins. However, they rocked. Served with some cocktail sauce, wedge of lemon and mignonette - I prefered the simple preparation of lemon with cocktail sauce while Susan preferred the mignonette. Unlike the many other places I've eaten where the oysters have flown far enough to earn frequent flier points, these tasted like they were pulled off the river bed that morning.

By this point, we're well into our meal and the next round brought something a bit more home-y. A deviled egg course made from Amy's grandmothers' recipe. A taste of Pennsylvania Dutch tradition piped through a pastry bag for a slight fanciness. Creamy, smooth and topped with slivers of chipped ham - what's not to love about deviled eggs? Bravo to them for putting it on a menu.

Amy Grandmothers' Deviled Eggs with Chipped Ham

We never made it to the Salads or Cold Plates, although Susan reported that someone else had tried the Various Beets and lov ed it. Roasted Buchanan Valley Pears and Adolescent Lettuces sound interesting and will have to be a point of interest for future visits.

The next round brought us Chips & Dip - three varieties of potato (yukon gold, sweet and blue), sliced thin, deep fried and served with an onion dip. Classic party food with a serious twist. The sweet potatoes were the favorite with the yukons a close second. The blue potatoes we had were more of the skin and a bit tougher. The chips were perfectly fried, slightly translucent (in the case of the Yukons) and stayed properly crisp.

Chips & Dip.

The nice thing about dining with Susan is that she's not afraid of anything. That's a plus. Whatever comes our way, it's going in our mouths. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Time to see what it tastes like. That which doesn't kill us, makes our tummies fuller. I had asked Rebecca if she wanted to come and join us but she had some weak excuses about a "happy hour", but she's too finicky an eater for this crowd so it was better that she wasn't there. Of course, the one person who I wanted to bring lives 2,000 miles to the south, making these kinds of excursions difficult and sporadic at best.

By far our favorite round, the Griddled Scallops with gold rice and special sauce rocked the house. So damn good, I had to get up and tell the kitchen just how much we loved them. Plump and perfectly griddled to a crispy caramel on the outside. Moist and succulent on the inside. Served with a rice that was just slightly crisp in spots an a lightly sweet sauce that was absolutely sublime. Not overpowering like so many sauces. This one was light, just below the radar and a perfect compliment to the sweetness of the scallops. It was almost as though you didn't know it was there. It was that complimentary. It was perfection.

Griddled Scallops with Gold Rice and Special Sauce - perfection.

Next round: Little Lamb Meatballs ina red pepper sauce with fried sage. Served in a little cast iron dish, these meatballs came straight out of the wood-fired brick oven and were piping hot. Once cooled sufficiently so as not to burn your mouth, these were lovely little bites. Slightly tangy. I actually only had one since the dishes were flying at us now and wasn't able to give the meatballs much attention.

After fiddling with the remote and trying to tame the music volume, Amy's dinner arrived. A little something off the menu. A large hamburger patty topped with grated cheese over a bed of greens. Looked pretty good but didn't have any. A little bit earlier, Nelson had ordered the Hamburger on a Roll. That looked good too with a nice red interior and a bag of French fries. The fries were interesting. Very thinly sliced and short, they reminded me of those Durkee Shoestring Potatoes you buy at the grocery store in cans. A real throwback to youth and a wonderful way to play on peoples' memories - without that gross greasiness you get from eating the stuff in the can.

Little Lamb Meatballs with red pepper sauce and fried sage.

For the next course, we decided to go for a Supper plate and ordered the Cast Iron Ribeye (medium) and asked the kitchen to slice it so all of us could sample. The steak came out very nicely but a bit more on the well side of medium. But the rich flavor of the ribeye was still there and quite enjoyable. I'm not a big fan of potatoes au gratin in general so it's always a tough sell to me. That said, the potatoes were properly done. Thinly sliced to a delicate texture and layered with cheese. It's a tasty accompaniment but I prefer rice over just about anything else so my personal bias starts to show when it comes to potatoes. However, I'm sure that those who prefer potatoes over rice would love the gratin. The steak sauce served with the ribeye was mildly sweet and very reminiscent to the sauce served at Peter Luger's in Brooklyn.

Amy's off-the-menu Hamburger Salad.

A free meal is a tempting mistress and I was certainly tempted to try other thiings on the menu but gluttony is a sin and it would have been wildly scandalous to continue beyond the limits of our stomachs. But all was not over, there was still dessert to be sampled.

The dessert menu offered three items and since there were three of us, three desserts it would be. Both the pear cobbler and apple dessert with vanilla ice cream were solid performers, however the standout of the three was the fig ball (can't remember the actual name). A large, round ball of something fig, it exploded with butter on the palate. Delicious. All three of us agreed that it was the dessert to have. So good, it needs further exploration.

Cast Iron Ribeye with cheddar potato gratin and house steak sauce.

Artifact Coffee barista Marietta was on hand to prepare for me a dark and lovely cappuccino with monk's head foam. I didn't get a picture of it, but it was pretty darn good for a coffeeshop and absolutely smashing for a restaurant (the difference being that most restaurants serve absolute swill as "coffee"). Dark chocolate notes and a nice finish. It was really good up until the point that I started concentrating on holding my pinky up while drinking and ended up pouring some cappuccino down my shirt. Good thing I wear black.

My view from the bar.

All that food, what about drink? The bar is well-stocked with both spirits, wines and soft drinks. Personally, I'm no longer a big drinker so I didn't get a chance to drink as much as everyone else. I stayed with the house-made sparkling water and imported Mexican Coca-Cola. The wine list looks pretty good and if you do go, I heartily recommend the Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon. At ninety-eight dollars a bottle, it's the priciest on the menu, but I had the chance to sample it earlier in the week at the staff wine tasting and it absolutely rocked. Fruit, black currant, body - delicious and highly recommended.

Pear Cobbler with creme pouring sauce.

Lingering around after service always affords a special glimpse into the workings of a restaurant. How does everyone interact? Do they like each other? Who's sleeping with whom? It's still early so the intrigue hasn't built to a fervor. Yet. Everyone's still calculating their moves, building their "sea legs."

So, do I recommend the Woodberry Kitchen? Well, of course I do. As someone who tries various restaurants and writes about those experiences, this one is pretty different - the owners are good friends which, of course, I cannot separate from a potential bias in favor of the restaurant. Heck, I smoked the chipotles, sourced the Coke and have some equipment on loan - of course I think the food is good. But really, just as with the other posts, it's up to you to visit for yourselves and decide if this is just a fluff piece or typical of this blog. I think you'll find the latter as well as a good meal made with great local ingredients at Woodberry Kitchen.

The fig ball dessert - amazing.

Apple Cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

Most of the Woodberry Kitchen Family on opening day.

Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Road
Baltimore, Maryland