Table Talk: Chefs as eager as anyone for spring's arrival

Signs of spring include lambs, asparagus and wild leek

March 17, 2010|By Richard Gorelick | Special to The Baltimore Sun

Since spring starts at 1:32 p.m. Saturday, does that mean all the area restaurants with seasonal menus will be changing them later that night?

Well, no. Unlike the sudden rush of summer's bounty, the culinary attractions of spring arrive more slowly and more fitfully. Aside from a stray morel or two, scarcely anything in the way of spring produce, livestock, seafood or even wine has arrived yet, and every chef we talked to agreed: We've still got a few weeks. When asked when they'll know it's spring, nearly everyone said the same thing: I'll know when the first asparagus comes in. Until that happens, they'll be braising just a bit longer dreaming up recipes for morels, lamb and English peas.

Not that their patrons are always so patient. Jeff Smith of Lauraville's Chameleon Cafe (4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376, thechameleoncafe.com) says in the weeks leading up to spring, he receives about 20 calls every year from patrons wondering when he's going to post the restaurant's new menu. "They're disappointed," he says, "but spring comes when it comes." Smith knows real spring is imminent when he starts to see potted herbs at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly.

Smith is one of the chefs who folds spring into his menu gradually, as it's happening, until by midseason, the whole menu has transformed.

Jamie Forsythe of Bolton Hill's B (1501 Bolton St., 410-383-8600) will add the season's first lamb as a chalkboard special and early-arriving vegetables such as baby carrots and spring turnips will displace winter vegetables as sides on current menu items. He has been negotiating with suppliers, such as Springfield Farm of Sparks, to secure new and generally scarcer items for B's spring menu, things like squab and kid goat.

The menu at Salt Tavern (2127 E. Pratt St., 410-276-5480, salttavern.com) in Upper Fells Point is overhauled overnight - although not yet, says co-owner and chef, Jason Ambrose, but around the second week in April. "It's not easy," says Ambrose, who prepares the front-of-house staff with two days of tastings, "but the kitchen staff gets energized by it, and our customers have come to expect it."

Chef Jason Lear of the Wine Market (921 E. Fort Ave., 410-241-6166, the-wine-market.com), in the Locust Point Industrial Area, explains that new menu items arise as much from the collaborative creativity of a tightly knit kitchen staff as from the growing schedule. "There's also a delicate balance between pure local purchasing and practical considerations. As much as we would like to, we can't always do both."

Along with Carroll County's Truck Patch Farm and Monkton's Roseda Black Angus Farm, the family-owned Springfield Farm is one of the area suppliers that comes up constantly in area chefs' conversation about planning seasonal menus. For Sandy Lawler, a chef for a smaller operation such as Feast in Mount Vernon (4 E. Madison, 410-332-0880, 4eastmadisoninn.com), it's something as simple as the e-mail alerts Springfield Farms puts out as new livestock becomes available.

Lawler is another chef on asparagus watch, and by tracking items in the grocery store - such as seeing something is from Florida this week that was from Belize last week, she'll know the time for local items is getting closer.

From how often it came up in these conversations, the mascot of this year's spring will be the ramp, also known as the wild leek, which has a short and smelly season. (The late John Dorsey used to say spring was here when Marconi's put shad roe on the menu.) Until ramps and asparagus arrive, patrons can divert themselves by gobbling up the last of winter's best dishes. The last of Chameleon Cafe's awesome choucroute garnie has been sold, but they've still got some pork shank.

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