Pictured is the crispy Springfield Farms veal sweetbreads… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
I love b. I always liked b, but now I love it. The Karzai family opened b (it's full name is "b — a Bolton Hill Bistro") as a Mediterranean bistro in 2003, and from the start, it was a presentable, satisfying place.
But now it manages to feel fully engaged without being fussy or forced. Instead it feels joyful, almost sporting, with the kitchen and the customers experiencing new menu items as the seasons change.
It's not perfect. You can't get a stiff drink there, just beer or wine. Parking is pretty tough, and the upholstery on the banquettes remains a major bummer. I used to worry about whether it was the right kind of place for Bolton Hill, an amenity-starved neighborhood.
Now I don't care. The restaurant is doing what it does so well that those concerns have become immaterial.
The chef since February of last year is Jamie Forsythe. I'll disclose that I know and like him. Like thousands of other people, I know him mostly from the Baltimore Farmers' Market, where for years he worked the mesclun bowls (among other things) at the Gardeners' Gourmet stand. A few years ago, Forsythe took over management of the Karzai's Fig Leaf Farm, and when he took over the kitchen at b, he kept the farm job. Not long ago, Qayum Karzai described Forsythe as the "hardest-working fella" he'd ever seen in the restaurant industry, except he didn't exactly say "fella."
Forsythe's energy shows. It shows up on the plate, and it particularly shows up on the menu, which these days feels more French than Italian. On a recent night, there were sweetbreads of veal, a bouillabaisse, and a cassoulet with duck confit and steak frites on the printed menu; vichyssoise and squab were the specials.
Sometimes, an animal will show up on a menu and stay around until it's all cooked and consumed. If you think to ask for it, the kitchen might slip you a marrow bone. Veal turns up twice as sweetbreads, in both entree and appetizer form, and then again alternating in a terrine with pork, and once more in the form of a tartare tenderloin.
On a recent meal, there was nothing like that, just results ranging from outstanding to, just once, with the bouillabaisse, not so fantastic. The pretty bouillabaisse was missing that depth of flavor you come to it for, and the monkfish and shellfish seemed extraneous. I'm glad we ordered it. For one thing, it was a reality check. When everyone's raving about everything, it can feel like group think is creeping in. The things we loved, we knew then, we loved for good reason.
We loved those veal sweetbreads, seasoned softly with caramelized pumpkin, sage and brown butter, and we loved a rustic little appetizer of grilled Spanish octopus, the most tender I've tasted, served with wedges of fingerling potatoes in a salsa verde. Since the last time I was there, b has lightened up its brandade preparation — now the salted cod comes in delicately crispy croquettes, served with a fine garlic aioli. They're terrific. Snails are on the menu, and out of the shell, served with an herbed butter polenta, warmed by a cheese fondue. We spread a mild and light chicken-liver mousse on crispy flatbreads, and loved that, too, but just a little less.
With entrees, the main attraction are the rough-and-tumble dishes, dripping with big flavor and presented without drama or fuss. These are things like the confit, served with a cassoulet of tender white beans and Merguez sausage, and the crispy roasted chicken, which comes with caramelized root vegetables and a standout Meyer lemon confit. And then, out will come a snowy halibut, pan-roasted with forest mushrooms, new spring ramps and a gentle lemon beurre blanc, showing the kitchen can do precision work, too.
On the front end of all of this fun was an exemplary charcuterie and cheese plate. And on the other end, there's a small and smart selection of desserts made in house — now, a fine Meyer lemon tart, and always, profiteroles, made with b's homemade ice cream, in flavors like blood orange, beet, cardamom and (amazing) pistachio. Throughout, there is good and attentive service that supports customer and kitchen in equal measure, as it should be. The wine list is notably straightforward, with nothing on its mind except providing something good for people to drink.
On a nice night, there might be no sweeter outdoor seating space. Bolton Hill, with its mature flowering trees and handsome houses, is serenely beautiful. Inside, it's lively, but can veer close to brassiness. I'd come here a few nights a week if I lived up in the neighborhood.
There are still everyday items on the menu for people who use b as a neighborhood cafe. That's good. But b is too good to let Bolton Hill have it to itself.