Raising the bar in Annapolis
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, March 5, 2010
The buzz: Night life in Annapolis revolves around Irish pubs and neighborhood taverns. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there hasn't been much variety. Until October 2009, that is, when Level, a two-story restaurant and bar, took over Kyma's spot on West Street. With a top-notch mixology program, weekend DJs and a hip, urban-lounge feel, it's like nothing else in town.
The attractive restaurant downstairs has dark wood tables and a long bar, but the real action is one floor up. One end of the townhouse-style building is filled with comfortable couches and wooden coffee tables. At the other is an L-shaped wooden bar backed by cool blue tiles. In between are conical tables for two, and an open area that becomes a dance floor once the DJ gets going.
The exposed-brick walls are dotted with tall, narrow windows and an assortment of mirrors. Thursday through Saturday after 10 p.m., a packed house grooves to mashups, '80s hits and Top 40 mixes, and there are plenty of groups chatting at the bar or at the drink rail on the opposite wall.
But this is still Annapolis, not K Street. There's no burly bouncer with a list at the door. There's no cover charge. The lounge's couches are open to anyone who wants to grab them.
"It's very cool that if someone wants to dance, they can, but you can also hang out," said Allison Picarde, 28, a manager for a personality analysis company, who was with a large group at the end of the bar. "It's a really cool mix. It's a different vibe for Annapolis. I'm happily surprised."
The bartenders, meanwhile, are working overtime, muddling fruit and shaking egg-filled cocktails for drinks such as the richly textured Smoked Margarita, which uses tequila smoked with mesquite in-house and a freshly made margarita mix of organic agave and limes, and the sunny, pleasantly tangy Pomegranate Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail topped with lime juice and a frothy lime foam, and studded with pomegranate seeds.
The scene: John Hogan, who opened Level with his partner John Miller, is a familiar face on the Washington scene, having worked in several nightspots before becoming the cocktail guru at Hudson. He left D.C. to get into the consulting business, crafting cocktail recipes for bars in New York and Las Vegas. (If you find yourself in Sin City, the Mirage's Rhumbar, which Hogan opened, is well worth a visit.)
But when Hogan decided to open a place of his own, he came home. He was born at the Naval Academy and attended high school in the city. Annapolis should be glad to have him back. Hogan has kept the focus on handcrafted cocktail ingredients, from the house-made bitters and mixes to the tonic water, which he blends from raw materials every week. (It has an earthy flavor - nothing like the high-fructose corn syrup taste in your usual Schweppes tonic.)
At the bar one Saturday night, Kymberly Dunning and her friends were laughing and sampling a variety of cocktails. It was their first visit to Level, said Dunning, 44, who identified herself as an account executive for Clear Channel Communications "and also a mom."
"We're Annapolitans who usually do the same thing, but we thought, tonight, let's venture out. The energy here is really great. And we love the drinks," she says. When she asked for a cocktail recommendation, the bartender whipped up a Summertime Grapefruit Martini, which is so new it's not even on the menu. It was delicious.
"When I first came in, I was skeptical," Dunning says. "I thought, 'Oh, this is a young place,' but it's a mix - a good crowd of people. I'm going to make this my new spot."
In your glass: The 13 cocktails are justifiably the stars of the show, but there are also 15 beers and 16 wines (many organic) by the glass. Not drinking alcohol? Level filters and bottles its own sparkling water and prepares its own ginger ale and lemonade. The bartenders will whip up nonalcoholic drinks on request.
On your plate: Level manages to hit most trends: It's a "small plates lounge" - not a tapas place - so everything is designed for sharing. The menu proudly lists 15 local farms that supply the ingredients, including cheeses from Cherry Glen Farm in Boyds and bison from Gunpowder Bison & Trading in Monkton. (Bison carpaccio - awesome.) There's a heavy dose of seafood, including rockfish ceviche and spicy tuna tossed with sriracha. Not much for vegetarians, though.
Price points: What's most surprising about the cocktail list is that no drink has a price in the double digits. A couple that use high-end ingredients cost $9, but most are $8. It's a similar story with the wines: Only two cost $12, and the rest are about $8 for a generous pour.
Nice to know: Through March, Level is donating 30 percent of proceeds from cocktails containing Chairman's Reserve rum to the Red Cross's Haitian relief efforts. Try it in the Haitian Relief Punch, mixed with a blend of clementine and pineapple juices and coconut-clove syrup. I let a few friends sample mine one night, and I was lucky to get the glass back.