The Dogwood is up and running. Not everyone believed Dogwood would come back this time. True, it came back the first time, when it closed just months after its 2007 opening, but that was so some sense could be made out of the confusing and cluttered old Mamie's space.
The closing last summer felt more ominous, and in spite of assurances from Bridget and Galen Sampson, it felt like a final goodbye.
Dogwood is not only open, but it also appears to be thriving. It was overflowing on a recent Tuesday night. At least part of the crowd was a large (and needy) party, and a very positive review in another publication had just landed on newsstands and mailboxes. Dogwood is clearly out to win, and the hustle is paying off.
The menu of casual fare, burgers and big salads has more prominence now. An Oyster Happy Hour is a great idea for getting a crowd in early. And check out the new lovely and useful Web site. Three cheers for posting your days of operation on the home page. That's very thoughtful, and at its best, Dogwood wins over customers with that kind of action.
Then and now, this below-level dining space is a challenge. This most recent renovation has dialed up the cheerfulness with strands of stringed lights and colorful murals. This whimsicality works much better as a reflection of the Dogwood's earnest social and sustainable missions than the more somber atmosphere it replaced. At this point, you either take to the space or don't. But be warned — it's very loud. No one else, throughout the dining room or over at the bar, seemed rattled by the noise, but it was getting to me.
I think the new look also better reflects the food from Galen Sampson's kitchen. In reviews of previous visits to Dogwood, I commented on what I felt to be a disconnect between Sampson's resume, most notably at Harbor Court Hotel, and the food at Dogwood, which I thought was erratic, or haphazard, or maybe incomplete. It was puzzling, and it was hard to pin down.
I still think the food tends this way, as often as not, but now, somehow, it makes more sense. Instead of feeling like an accident, it feels intentional, as though Sampson wants diners to be conscious of the human touch in cooking and to respect it. That's the message I was getting anyway, and I took to it.
It made me more patient, for instance, with a daily pasta special (the "pasta cocina") that Sampson makes each day from market-fresh ingredients. On this day, he mixed black-pepper linguini with artichoke hearts, greens and mustard chicken confit, using pan juices for the sauce. The result was chaos, and I'm not sure I came close to understanding it. But its exuberance pleased me. You could almost see Sampson stopping at market stalls, and, saying, "Sure, why not?" Likewise, the plating of a seared scallops entree may once have felt ham-handedly clumsy, with way too much spring-pea risotto, but now it feels generous.
On weeknights, Dogwood is running what it's calling "Community Specials," reasonably priced plates of comfort food. Wednesday is cioppino, Thursday is buttermilk fried chicken, and on our Tuesday night, the special was a thoroughly delicious and satisfying short-rib meatloaf, seasoned and cooked nicely, and served with a simple stuffed baked potato. This is what I'd come back for.
There are small menu groupings of salads and fresh soups, and a section devoted to baked, fried and raw oysters. Small plates are next, and the big winner here is a handsome eggplant strata, in which crispy slices of eggplant are layered with a tomato ragout, olive tapenade and mashed potatoes. It's a real treat. Another plate places a pretty hunk of rare yellowfin tuna with spring pole beans, fennel and orange fillets. This really had that same haphazard quality as the pasta special — and, again, I was willing to just go along with it. A grilled artichoke, though, served with a roasted pepper aioli, did nothing for anybody.
Naturally, there are holdovers here from previous Dogwood menus, like the grilled beef tenders and the organic breast of chicken — reliable choices. Another holdover is the well intentioned, team-based service that seemed particularly harried when we visited.
But most things are in apple-pie order. The wine list, cocktail menus and desserts are in good shape. Anything that comes with ice cream from Taharka Bros. (formerly Sylvan Beach) is going to be worth having.
Where: 911 W. 36th St
Contact: 410-889-0952, dogwoodbaltimore.com
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays
[For ratings: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or uneven; ✭: Poor]