Area's restaurants illustrate year's trends

December 30, 2007|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,sun restaurant critic

On the local restaurant scene, this was a year of big openings and small trends, chefs from the past making a new splash, and for me personally, a new appreciation of readers' passion for eating out -- brought about by the launch of my restaurant blog, Dining@Large, last April.

In spite of the generally gloomy economic picture, a surprising number of new restaurants opened their doors in 2007, from Aloha Tokyo in Locust Point to Zella's Pizzeria in West Baltimore.

The two that got the most press offer intriguing examples of important restaurant trends locally and nationally. Each is the personal vision of an experienced restaurateur, and their places could not be more different. (I'm not discounting the roles their wives and the other partners play in the two projects, but the contrast in the two men's styles is illuminating.)

Cinghiale in Harbor East is Tony Foreman's mostly successful attempt to re-create an authentic, traditional Italian enoteca and osteria. The more faithful it is to his original concept, the more Cinghiale looks to the best of the past.

Woodberry Kitchen near Hampden is Spike Gjerde's quirky farm-to-table "green" restaurant. The space and the eco-concept could not be any more future-oriented.

In fact, locally sourced dishes, organic ingredients and seasonal menus -- all part of this farm-to-table and green movement -- are surely the Restaurant Trend of the Year. We started hearing about it when Dogwood Restaurant opened in Hampden early in the year, along with Restaurant Local in Easton. But many Baltimore chefs have been stressing local, organic ingredients even when they aren't the raison d'etre of their establishments.

Others are doing what Foreman has done. Pazza Luna in Locust Point, which opened early in the year, moved away from the American Italian of its popular predecessor and re-created the cuisine of a trattoria, serving what owner Riccardo Bosio calls "hearty peasant Italian food."

Even national chains are going for authenticity. Fogo de Chao Steak House in the Inner Harbor, probably the third biggest opening of the year, promised to bring Baltimoreans the "centuries-old culinary tradition of churrasco." At P.F. Chang's nearby, the menu features the cuisine of a specific region in China every few months.

Meanwhile we had plenty of openings that were almost aggressively anti-chain -- Three... in the Patterson Park area, Rocket to Venus in Hampden, Yellow Dog Tavern and Jack's Bistro in Canton, Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point, and the just-opened Junior's Wine Bar in Federal Hill, to name a few of the likable neighborhood spots that ended up having broad appeal to Baltimoreans. Darker Than Blue in Waverly deserves mention if only for the owner's inspirational belief that the neighborhood is on its way up.

In between fall three splashy new restaurants that aren't quite chains, but aren't quite local either: Lebanese Taverna, Lemongrass and Tsunami, all in the Harbor East area.

Two big-name chefs (big at least locally) who haven't been heard from in a while have reappeared on the dining scene. Michael Tabrizi re-created his popular Tabrizi's in a new location at the harbor. Nancy Longo of Pierpoint fame had opened Longo's in Green Spring Station at the end of last year; this year she closed it.

Noteworthy

A few more highlights and lowlights of 2007. Remember, these only apply to places I've been to or written about this year:

Best meal of the year: A tie between b in Bolton Hill and Pazo in Fells Point. Both got three and a half stars for food.

Best restaurants that still hold up after all these years: Tersiguel's in Ellicott City and Henninger's Tavern in Upper Fells Point.

Best cheap comfort food dinner: The Thursday Slavic night special for $9.95 at the reinvented Ze Mean Bean in Fells Point.

Smart move of the year: The Japanese restaurant Minato left its Mount Vernon basement for cutting-edge digs up the street-- and a picture window.

Best thinking ahead: Pazo realized the tapas trend was waning and added entrees to its menu.

Unexpected loss of the year: The closing of Abacrombie. (It may or may not have reopened by the time you read this.)

Expected loss: The much-traveled Edward Kim once again left a Baltimore restaurant (Saffron, now Indigma) for friendlier climes, taking a job in Washington.

Trendlet of the year: Pan-Asian bistros, as opposed to Asian fusion or one-Asian-cuisine restaurants.

Runner up: Sliders, the reincarnation of White Castle hamburgers (for instance, Rocket to Venus' Wimpies, four 2-ounce burgers).

Weirdest name for a Memphis-style barbecue place: The new and well-regarded Alabama BBQ Co. on Harford Road.

Weirdest name, period: Phat Pug Coal Fired Pizza in Perry Hall

Runner up: The oZ. Chophouse in Maple Lawn (pronounced oh-zee.)

Name guaranteed to make copy editors tear out their hair: Three... I still don't get those three little dots.

Meal most likely to induce gout: The all-you-can-eat meat fest at Fogo de Chao.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

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