Table Talk: A year of nonstop change in the restaurant scene

December 28, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

The year began with Great Sage in Clarksville switching on New Year's Day from a vegetarian to all-vegan menu. And from that day on, hardly anything stayed settled for long in the area's dining scene. It was a big year for making transitions and changes. Some were voluntary, but others weren't, the victim of bad decisions, a sluggish economy and, in a few cases, a sudden disaster.

Restaurants closed, sometimes suddenly, but every once in a while with enough time to give customers a chance to say good-bye. Chefs were sent spinning out of kitchen doors this year at what seemed like a frantic pace, but almost always, they soon spun into another one.

I was taken with how resilient restaurants were. I thought the most impressive feat of restaurant agility was in Federal Hill, where the restaurant known as Ten-O-Six renamed itself Thai Yum even as it lopped off half of its menu. That did the trick for me, and I look back on my reviewing visit as one of my favorite meals of the year. City Café gets my nod for the year's most improved restaurant. With Chad Gauss at the kitchen's helm, the Mount Vernon restaurant is enjoying its best years ever.

I was also by impressed restaurants like Pazo and the Wine Market, which paused to take stock of themselves, even when it meant making rough decisions like parting with a chef. Michael Costa, who left Pazo, landed a few months later at Zaytinya in Washington, and Jason Lear survived his separation from the Wine Market — he is the newly named chef at Wayne Mahaffey's Bistro Rx in Canton.

There were a few happy returns of old friends. Just as the year began, Blue Agave founder Michael Marks came back with a new Mexican restaurant, Miguel's Cocina y Cantina , in the spookily hip Silo Point complex. The landmark Baltimore County restaurant property loved by generations as Peerce's Plantation, reopened as the Grille at Peerce's, with Mark Hofmann as proprietor and chef. That old Hampden favorite McCabe's reopened under new ownership.

In Oxford, a thoroughly revived Robert Morris Inn opened with Mark Salter as proprietor and chef. From the fried oysters to Smith Island cake, a late-summer dinner there was one of the best meals I had all year.

Word came in May that a group of investors, including Quyum Karzai, was arranging a purchase of the long-abandoned Chesapeake property, and the city's spending board approved the sale in October. Another group of investors appeared to show interest in purchasing the shuttered Brass Elephant property, but nothing ever came of it.

But the return that seemed to strike the biggest chord with Baltimoreans was something not remotely associated with fine dining. The Gino Giant came back, starring in a rebooted Gino's franchise, and Baltimoreans made pilgrimages up to the first new store in King of Prussia, Pa.

Among new restaurants, my favorite was Bluegrass. With a Southern-influenced menu featuring venison, pork cheeks and duck prosciutto and chef Patrick Morrow's spectacular presentations of cheese and charcuterie, the South Baltimore restaurant gathered an all-star hospitality staff, beginning with general manager Jorbie Clark and including beverage director Christopher Coker.

Other openings of note included Vino Rosina , a teaming of the Rosina Gourmet people and "Top Chef" contestant Jesse Sandlin; Centro, a South Baltimore tapas restaurant from George Dailey of On the Hill Cafe; and Taste Mediterranean Grille, which opened in late fall in the former Café Troia space in Towson.

There were ongoing challenges for restaurateurs Timothy Dean, who opened Prime Steakhouse in the same Fells Point location where his previous efforts had opened and closed. In an eventful year, Dean would appear as a contestant on "Top Chef" and wage a defense against creditors. As the year ended, Prime was open for business, buoyed by a surge in business Dean credited to "Groupon, Groupon, Groupon."

A low-simmering dispute between the owners of Milan and its Little Italy neighbors was resolved at an anti-climactic liquor board hoarding. The restaurant's license was renewed. Months later, it would switch out head chefs, and the building that houses it would be put up for sale.

Helen's Garden and Baltimore Pho closed but the owners gave their customers time to say goodbye. But sudden departures were the norm, as was seen with Amer Café, Luca's Café, the Austin Grill, Ullswater, Lemongrass, Diablita Café, Parkside and the Harvest Café.

The most dramatic closings, though, occurred as a result of the early morning Dec. 7 fire severely damages Mount Vernon's Park Plaza building, putting Donna's, My Thai and Indigma out of business indefinitely. Two other restaurants in adjoining buildings suffer only minor damage and reopen within days.

The biggest food event outside of a restaurant came in May, when Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert headlined the first annual "Foodie Experience" event at the Hippodrome Theatre. Seated on pretty sofas, gossiping and joking, the noted chefs put on a fine show.

One last transition I need to mention. In February, after 30-some years of reviewing restaurants for The Baltimore Sun (among a million other things), Elizabeth Large exited for the last time through the doors of 501 N. Calvert St.

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