Is there a chef in the world who doesn't want to open his or her own restaurant? I doubt it. I can understand why someone would want total creative control, but the challenges of being an owner, particularly in a recession, on top of having to produce the food must be daunting.
But chefs continue to do it. One of the latest is Antoine Petteway, who had a loyal following when he worked at the Metropolitan, a couple of blocks from the location of his new place, the Hill. He's managed to stay on good terms with his former employers, which says something about the kind of person he is.
Petteway, I gather, is a major draw for the Hill. Neighborhood folks like him and know his food. The restaurant was almost full the night I was there. But outsiders who don't know what his kitchen does best and, therefore, what to order from the large menu might run into problems.
I would also say that if noise bothers you, don't plan to eat at the Hill during happy hour. The two dining rooms each contain part of the horseshoe-shaped bar. The renovations of what was once an Indian restaurant, Banjara, are handsomely done but include no fabric of any kind. Noise reverberates off the pressed-tin ceilings, the exposed pipes, the wood paneling and walls, the exposed brick wall and the big glass windows. The bar patrons were so noisy I couldn't even hear the weeks-old baby crying, and the parent holding him was right next to me.
Once it got a little later, though, the bar emptied and things quieted down. (And the parents wisely took their poor child home.)
The Hill's food is a combination of bar food and American with offbeat twists. Although the appetizers are called "Starters," they more closely resemble small plates. You could make a meal by having just a couple of them.
Sliders come in the usual trio, but this time they were seafood sliders, not beef. One was filled with lobster and bacon, one with shrimp and avocado and one with crab and chipotle aioli. They sounded fabulous, and the fillings were all good. But the cold Wonder bread-type buns didn't live up to what they contained.
One thing I noticed when I walked in was that just about everyone seemed to be having the crab cakes. There were too many other interesting dishes on the menu, but I did try mini-crab cakes as a first course. They were super, and I'm betting the crab cake entree is just as good, although these had kernels of corn and were deep fried, while the entree crab cakes are broiled.
On the whole, we did better when we stuck to the tried-and-true. I followed the crab cakes with soft-shell crabs, a special that night. The preparation was simple: pan-fried so that nothing distracted from their golden crunch, and served with good coleslaw and curly fries.
Crepes filled with chicken and spinach won me over, too. (Of course, bathing them in a sherry-sparked cream sauce didn't hurt.) Of particular note: The kitchen has a nice touch with fresh vegetables; the asparagus that came with the crepes, for instance, was on the pleasantly crisp side of tender.
When we experimented, the results weren't so successful. A thick slab of herb-encrusted salmon fillet was very fresh and nicely cooked, but it tasted more of cinnamon and brown sugar than herbs, a combination that struck me as odd rather than intriguing. A generous filet mignon, cooked exactly as ordered, was topped with lump crab meat but also blue cheese and a tart raspberry sauce. The two didn't play well together and overwhelmed the delicate crab. Again, the fresh vegetables - a mix of what was fresh at the market - were a highlight.
The only real disappointment was the red curry Buffalo wings appetizer. The fried wings had no hint of the promised red curry sauce. They tasted like ordinary wings with carrot sticks, celery and a very tart blue cheese dressing. A better starter would be the seafood pizza on pita, generously covered with shrimp, crab, spinach and mushrooms.
Very few of the Hill's entrees are priced over $20, but if that's too much for you, there are plenty of salads and sandwiches on the dinner menu, like the grilled focaccia with goat cheese, cheddar, bacon, tomato and avocado. Drinks are modestly priced, too, including the small but decent wine list with many bottles in the $20-$30 range and glasses all $6.
Desserts could be wonderful, but I think the problem is that very few people order them, so two of our three were stale. If the one with layers of passion fruit and chocolate mousse is on the dessert tray, that's probably your best bet.
The food at the Hill is a bit uneven, but if you can avoid a loud happy hour crowd, it's well worth a visit. The owner and staff could not be nicer. You may be someone who's intrigued by raspberry sauce on filet mignon; but if not, you could have the blackened rib-eye or the short ribs, both priced under $20. There are a lot of options, and crab cakes are always the fallback.
Address:: 1017 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Hours:: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Prices:: appetizers: $7-$13, entrees: $15-$24
Food: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Service:: *** ( 3 STARS)
Atmosphere:: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: ***
Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]