Popping at Corks: new menu, more fun

restaurant review

November 16, 2008|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Often when a restaurant reinvents itself, it smacks of desperation. But, it turns out, not in the case of Corks in Federal Hill. Before it closed at the end of the summer for renovations, Corks was one of those fine-dining restaurants that have a good reputation but people forget about because newer, trendier places get all the buzz.

When it reopened after two months, it had a nifty redo by Patrick Sutton Associates and a more casual, less expensive, cheese-centric menu.

When I last ate there six years ago, the back dining room was a private room. It's now the nicer of the two downstairs dining rooms, with a beautiful copper-topped bar. A second kitchen has been added upstairs, to supplement the tiny open kitchen at the entrance, which now has a sort of bumblebee yellow back-lit wall facing it. The tables are still white-clothed, but the fact that they have paper on top tells you things are less formal.

At the center of the first dining room is the cheese display. Artisanal American cheeses are a specialty of the house - 14 are listed on the menu - and you can get a plate of one, three or five. Cheese is taken seriously here; it comes with baguette and walnut bread and not a lot of frills. If you aren't a cheese aficionado, your server will put together a nicely balanced plate of different textures, flavors and sharpness, perhaps throwing in a cheese or two that aren't on the menu.

You could also get one of the three cheese fondues, all blends of gourmet cheeses, but note that they aren't served with a heat source. Even so, our waiter said they are very popular.

Finally, cheese comes in the form of upscale grilled-cheese sandwiches, like the marvelous Pleasant Ridge Reserve cow's cheese grilled with fresh basil and tomato confit on wheat berry bread.

Cheese is one of several ways owner Jerry Pellegrino has introduced casual, fun food to the restaurant. My favorite example of this is Corks' version of a corn dog. It's spectacular: Spanish lamb sausage is encased in a crunchy cornmeal crust and served on a bed of gourmet popcorn with mustard.

Corks also offers the best fish and chips any of us has had in Baltimore, with very fresh, white, flaky cod in a beer batter, homemade tartar sauce and salty gourmet chips instead of french fries.

The chips are very, very good, but people expect fries with fish, and Corks has excellent fries. They come with the bison burger on a brioche roll. I haven't had a huge number of bison burgers, but they always seem a little too lean to me. My health-conscious husband loved it, and the meat was certainly packed with flavor. I also loved its three condiments served in three Asian soup spoons.

Corks has one soup, a satisfying tomato and caramelized onion. And there are a couple of vegetarian dishes, including pasta with roasted vegetables and a house-made tomato sauce with shaved parmesan.

Only two dishes weren't completely satisfying.

Unfortunately they were both mine.

"Veggies & Dip" was a good idea poorly executed. It was supposed to look like a Bloody Mary, with half a small glass of a tomato-ginger dip that was almost a chilled soup. If you wanted raw vegetables, though, there just weren't enough of them, and the celery was decidedly droopy.

I left it up to the chef how he wanted to cook the pan-seared salmon with sauteed shrimp, broccoli and couscous, and he wanted to leave it almost raw. I could hardly send it back once I had left the choice up to him, though.

Be sure to ask for bread and butter if you don't get it; Corks' bread is excellent, as it should be in a place where cheese is important. And be sure to save room for dessert. The house specialty is right in line with the other items on the menu that seem quite ordinary but are served with a funky twist.

In this case, it's the pbj, which is actually Nutella (hazelnut and chocolate spread) and strawberry jam grilled on sweet bread. I see its appeal, but I'd recommend instead the bread pudding or the delicious homemade cookie plate. The suggested go-with is a root beer float made with Licor 43, but just how wild and crazy are you, anyway? The cookies work very well with coffee.

One thing about the new Corks is still the same. It still has an all-American wine list - wide-ranging with some very affordable choices as well as top-of-the-line selections.

Corks only takes reservations for large parties, and there wasn't a table available for us when we first got there on a weeknight. (A couple of large parties were in progress.) We started off at the bar, and it's such a cozy place to be that I was almost sorry we didn't end up eating there.

If that night was any indication, Pellegrino did the right thing in reinventing his restaurant. There is still a specials menu of three appetizers and four or so "serious" entrees for those who liked Corks the way it used to be. But the new, improved Corks (and I liked the old one) is lively, less expensive and a lot more fun than the old one. It's also noisier than I remember, but that will come as no surprise to anyone these days.


Address: 1026 S. Charles St., Federal Hill

Hours: Open for lunch, dinner and late-night every day, Sunday for brunch.

Prices: Small plates: $4-$11, entrees: $14-$34.

Contact: 410-752-3810, corksrestaurant.com

Food: *** ( 3 STARS)

Service: *** ( 3 STARS)

Atmosphere: *** ( 3 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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