A year-end look at restaurants' ups, downs

December 28, 2008|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

When I went back to see what I wrote in my year-end wrap-up last year, I didn't expect this sentence: "In spite of the generally gloomy economic picture, a surprising number of new restaurants opened their doors in 2007."

I didn't know the meaning of "generally gloomy economic picture" last year. What was I talking about? It reminds me of that scene in Crocodile Dundee where the hero says, "That's not a knife," to a kid with a switchblade, as he brings out his crocodile-hunting knife. "That's a knife."

This is a gloomy economic picture.

In 2008, the most worrisome news was the number of restaurant closings. Here are the ones I thought most notable: Boccaccio in Little Italy shut down after the death of its owner in September, and as of this writing has not reopened. Pisces in the Hyatt Regency became the latest upscale hotel dining room to close. Taste, the ambitious restaurant in the old Hess Shoes space in Belvedere Square, disappeared suddenly, as did downtown's pan-Asian Tsunami, barely a year old.

Nasu Blanca in Locust Point, a small Spanish-Japanese restaurant, did the right thing, announcing its closing in advance and refunding gift certificate money. The vegan-friendly Zodiac in Station North is gone. Jesse Wong's Hong Kong in Columbia closed the first of this month. And here's one that truly signified the end of an era: Octogenarian Morris Martick decided he had had enough, and shut the doors of Martick's, his quirky French bistro.

I don't want to dwell too long on the bad news, because good things happened as well this year. Hamilton/Lauraville blossomed as a dining destination, unlikely as that would have seemed a couple of years ago. Clementine, a sort of SoBo Cafe North, Hamilton Tavern and Parkside Fine Foods & Spirits are worthy additions to a neighborhood that already had the Chameleon Cafe and Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque, to name only two.

As for openings in other parts of the city, the newest member of the Kali's Court Restaurant Group, Meli, created buzz with its honey theme. The spot vacated by Taste didn't stay empty long, as a chef/owner from Christopher Daniel in Cockeysville opened his own place, Crush, there. The new seafood restaurant Catonsville Gourmet in Catonsville was an instant success.

The popular Mari Luna Mexican Grill in Pikesville unveiled its more upscale version, Mari Luna Latin Grille, a few blocks north. Corks in Federal Hill, which had been closed a long time for renovations, reopened with a jazzy new decor and a more casual, more fun menu. And the much-trafficked restaurant space in Green Spring Station where Harvey's once was finally found a tenant that should be there for awhile, Tark's Grill.

That's an overview of what happened on the local restaurant scene in 2008. And now is the moment you've all been waiting for: my annual Golden Whisks Awards. (Actually, this is the first year I've given them that name.) Please remember that only those restaurants that were reviewed by me in 2008 were in contention for an award.

Meals of the year While I can't point to any 4-star restaurants this year, I gave 3 1/2 stars to the New American cuisine at Abacrombie near the Meyerhoff and Fin Steak & Seafood in Fells Point, as well as the gourmet bar food at Hamilton Tavern in Hamilton.

Best service (upscale version) Besides her general competence, our waitress at Tark's Grill got 3 1/2 stars for noticing my friend didn't eat much of his entree and telling the manager, who offered to bring him something else or take it off our check without being asked.

Best service (Old Baltimore version) It was great to have a career waitress at Michael's Steak & Lobster House in Bayview who saw her job as worthwhile work, not just something she was doing until she got through school.

Best atmosphere At the beginning of the year, I gave 3 1/2 stars to Woodberry Kitchen in Hampden/Woodberry for the stunning space created mostly from reclaimed materials. Kali's Court in Fells Point was also notable for its luxurious fin de siecle feel.

Trend I most don't want to hear about anymore Local, seasonal, organic and sustainable cuisine. Love the trend, hate the fact that every restaurant is now touting it and writing about it ad nauseam on their menus.

Best example that eco-driven food is here to stay Artscape featured a "green" food court for the first time, along with its traditional festival food like crab cakes, souvlaki and Polish sausages.

Garnish that I had too often in '08 and most want to go away The edible purple orchid seems to have made a comeback. Good lord, it's so old we once had a restaurant, now long gone, named after it.

Proof that I'm not as influential as I thought I started my review of Pisces by saying, "Pisces ... deserves to be in any conversation about Baltimore's premier seafood restaurant" and a few months later the Hyatt's dining room closed for good.

Most puzzling name Fin Steak & Seafood. Why isn't it Fin Seafood & Steak? Or Fin & Hoof Seafood & Steak?

Best advice from your restaurant critic If you get a restaurant gift certificate, use it quickly. You never know how long a place is going to be around in this economy.

Best dessert (upscale version) The warm, puffy, flourless chocolate cake with cafe au lait ice cream at Woodberry Kitchen.

Best dessert (Old Baltimore version) The Smith Island cake at Catonsville Gourmet (from SugarBakers).

Most startling freebie The condoms handed out by the waitress at RA Sushi in Harbor East.

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