Shown is a black lava, sea salted, pan seared and oven-roasted… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
The Corner, a new restaurant in Hampden, took over the location where a diner had operated since the beginning of time. The Corner has things like escargot, moules frites and roasted monkfish on the menu, so, naturally, folks fretted about The Avenue losing another piece of its flinty soul.
Don't worry. The Corner has the makings of a weird-Hampden classic. In these early months — it opened in early March — it's as awkwardly charming as a newborn calf, and part of an evening's pleasure is watching it stay upright. The bigger pleasure comes from sheer enjoyment of the food. From a potato-leek soup to a homemade caramel hazelnut parfait, this was one of my most enjoyable restaurant meals in months.
When we visited, the place was packed early and late. The approximate shape and size of a railway dining car, the single dining room manages to be sleek and slightly frumpy at the same time. Earth tones predominate, and the main decorative element are the diners themselves; and when the room is full of people, it glows.
I should mention some ambient oddness having to do with the restaurant's policies, well-intended I'm sure, but possibly off-putting. The menu informs customers that prices are based "on cash transaction and in-house dining," which effectively means that you'll be charged for using a credit card and for asking for takeout containers. I did both and was levied a single $2 "convenience fee," I'm not sure for what, but it didn't bother me. The portions here are generous and the prices across the board seem a dollar or two below what they could be; if those policies help keep prices down, I'm all for it.
The best quirk — the Corner is BYOB, and the Wine Source, one of the best-staffed and best-stocked wine and liquor stores in the city, is virtually next door. The worst quirk — having to ask for bread when the mussels, a specialty here, are served.
But the oddest thing of all about The Corner is how the closet-sized kitchen manages to send out such consistently beguiling, interesting and delicious food. The chefs of record are Zeke Altenbernd and Bernard Dehaene, the founding chef and co-owner of Mannequin Pis in Olney. They appear to be having a great time.
The Corner never comes out and says that it's Belgian-influenced, but you'd have to go out of your way not to notice the selection of mussels, served in traditional kilopots, the Resurrection Ale beef stew and, for dessert, a Belgian waffle, topped with seasonal fruit and hand-whipped cream. (A good Belgian case could be made, too, for the potato-leek soup, the smoked trout salad and the pan-roasted monkfish, which is served with truffled salsify and vanilla-bean chocolate-beer drizzles.)
But mostly, you get the idea that the chefs are making things that fascinate them and that they think diners will respond to. For instance, a lamb entree shouts North Africa — chunks of Merguez sausage and a tender hunk of grilled lamb are served on a generous bed of couscous rimmed by a bright and plucky homemade harissa sauce.
Right away, appetizers are inspiring. A lightly dressed salad of bibb lettuce and mixed greens comes topped with two perfect endive leaves and slice of freshly warmed Cherry Glen goat cheese. The salad comes fully dressed with a lovely light vinaigrette. The potato-leek soup is served in wide soup plate, the better to artfully display the creamy broth filled with fingerling potatoes, bits of bacon and, especially, the lengths of leeks wilted to a delicate crisp.
Two other appetizers show the kitchen's range. The escargot appetizer, a robust saute of snails with shiitake mushrooms, layered on delicate puff pastry, is robust and earthy. The Jacqueline is delicate and pretty, silky lobster and crab meat rolled into slices of smoked salmon, garnished with salmon roe and fresh dill.
Entrees are fully plated and draw "aahhs" as they're set on the table: "Look, the kitchen is doing the work." Salmon is done so smartly, cooked perfectly for starters and then topped with a sheet of lacy fried potatoes. The fish is served with crisp and shiny haricots verts and the plate is dotted with vivid basil oil. This is no gimmick: The oil ideally complements the salmon. I loved the strong, wild flavors of a trout fillet pan-seared in caper butter, stuffed with wilted spinach.
A friend who lived in Belgium gave passing marks to the house's Belgian waffle. That parfait, hazelnut ice cream with homemade caramel and whipped cream, she sent to the head of the class.
Final words: The menu is presented as a fact — the patron is not invited to build his own anything. There are no stated rules about substitutions, but you'd be misguided to expect it here. If you tend to find your restaurant food underseasoned, you'll love it at The Corner. You'll also enjoy The Corner if you like a leisurely pace.
Where: 850 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 443-869-5075, cornerbyob.com
Hours: Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday and for Saturday and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$10; entrees, $17-$22
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]