I like it when restaurateurs take chances. The Blue Hill Tavern, which opened this summer, is one of the best recent examples I can think of, at a time when many owners are throwing in the towel or turning their places into sports bars.
The location is surprising, in an area that hasn't been gentrified yet. Yet here is the Blue Hill Tavern, a soaring building with open, contemporary spaces, lots of glass and wood, two bars on two levels, multiple dining areas and decorative details like a waterfall behind the bar. It may not be so appealing in the winter - there's so little fabric it will seem bare - but right now it's airy and spacious (and noisy, of course).
The owners have taken a chance on the sheer size of the place. On the weeknight we were there it was about half full. And they have taken a chance on the menu, which is designed to appeal both to neighborhood folks who want a bite to eat after work and to those who are celebrating a special occasion - and who might drop $320 on a bottle of Dom Perignon. Few restaurants can pull this off successfully, but those that can have a better chance of surviving, even when times are tough.
Whoever designed the menu has a sense of whimsy. So, for instance, among the Snacks you'll find trompe l'oeil parmesan garlic doughnuts, a savory quick bread in the shape of small cake doughnuts (three of them) dusted with bacon-flavored flour that looks like powdered sugar. They are very clever, but you may want to wait for the delicious (and free) rolls - raisin whole wheat and crusty French - which taste even better.
The kitchen's take on the usual tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich reverses it and produces an excellent, rich, but not too thick, beer-flavored cheese soup. Heirloom tomato slices with balsamic vinegar come on the side.
If you order the steak and eggs appetizer, you'll get thin slices of carpaccio with two tiny fried quail eggs and a slice of brioche toast and jelly.
The Waldorf salad turns out to be two iceberg wedges with a fine blue cheese dressing, lightly candied walnuts and apple slices arranged nearby.
For something a little more conventional, the steamed little neck clams with a bit of chorizo to jazz them up and a smooth white wine broth would have been a fine choice if the clams hadn't been gritty.
Things get more serious when it comes to the entrees. And also less interesting. The best of our main courses was a burger, and this is what I would order next time at Blue Hill. Unfortunately it was ordered medium and came well done. Stress that you want it pink -- or red. But it was gorgeous beef, a soft brioche roll, great smoky bacon, good cheddar that had completely melted into the beef, fried onions and some sort of gourmet ketchup that was no more like regular ketchup than Grey Poupon is like French's mustard. Skinny fries on the side are a definite plus.
We also tried one of the specials that evening, a large fillet of white tuna, draped in a cauliflower sauce. Think about those visuals for a minute. A few strategically placed vegetables on the plate did little to add color. More important, while the fish was perfectly fresh and cooked well, the taste was not much more interesting than the look.
Wild boar ragout (not sure what happened to the local and sustainable trend here) with wide paparadelli noodles, had a fine balance of sauce to pasta, a restrained sauce with tender meat and only a bit of spinach and tomatoes. It's not a dish you're going to swoon over, though, and I can't quite tell you why.
The half a roast chicken had that same quality of almost being notable, but what I remember most about it wasn't it or the broccoli on the side, but the creamy-hot, crusty-topped macaroni and cheese that came with it. The side shouldn't overshadow its main course.
I would definitely put Blue Hill on my list of places to go for dessert after a show. Desserts are interesting and very rich. If you want something a little lighter, there's ice cream from Broom's Bloom, a Bel Air dairy. You'll get a taste of it with the seasonal peach-blackberry cobbler.
If you're willing to throw caution to the winds, try the chocolate silk pie with a chocolate cookie crumb crust. It's so dense the softly whipped cream actually cuts the richness. The peanut butter cup is just that, only it's been stuck in the oven with a cloud of meringue, and it comes out warm and decorated with a little homemade peanut brittle. On my to-try list: The brioche bread pudding with caramel and apples.
If I had to describe the food at the Blue Hill Tavern in one word, it would be inconsistent. Still, if you explore the menu, I'm sure you could find plenty of things to fall in love with. Right now, for me, those would be the cheese soup, the Waldorf salad, the burger and the desserts. But I'd like a shot at the salmon, the steaks and the rack of lamb. Even the mushroom Wellington with spinach and feta sounds pretty good to me.
Give the Blue Hill Tavern credit for an intriguing space, pleasant and professional service and a good, California-oriented wine list with lots of choices by the glass - not to mention an extensive beer list. Throw in complimentary valet parking. All those things definitely make it worth a try.
Blue Hill Tavern
Where: : 938 S. Conkling St., Brewers Hill
Contact: : 443-388-9363, BlueHillTavern.com
Hours: : Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner only Saturday
Appetizers: : $9-$13, entrees: $18-$32.
Food: : ** (2 stars)
Service: : ** * (3 stars)
Atmosphere: : ** * (3 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]