By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 18, 2013
Then: Stumbling out of the gate (2012)
Again: Seeing more stars
What a difference a year makes. Expectations ran high in Baltimore last spring when Wit & Wisdom opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Four Seasons hotel. Besides the fine address, the dining room with a water view had a pedigreed muse behind it, San Francisco-based chef and restaurateur Michael Mina.
His first chef didn't pan out, however; except for desserts, the cooking proved inconsistent. The situation turned around with the arrival of Clayton Miller, who previously made Trummer's on Main in Clifton worth the drive. Visit Wit & Wisdom these days -- and you should -- and you'll taste what I mean; Miller is a chef who makes something special out of the routine.
What might be the most impressive bone marrow in the region can be found in this airy dining room. The first course starts with a soak in salt-and-sugar water ("It's all about brining these days," Miller jokes) followed by a smoke, a rub of cumin and other seasonings and a blast of heat from the pizza oven. The pleasures continue with crisp sea bass perched on buttery ribbons of savoy cabbage flavored with truffles and a froth of chipotle, and chicken banded in serrano ham and staged with prunes and rectangles of corn bread (the secret to its moistness and tang: sour cream). One of the few missteps during two recent meals was the leathery tempura on an order of scallops.
Once spotty, service has been polished. Always interesting, the cocktails and wine list remain so. Here's to a great recovery.
A dim Baltimore star in Mina’s constellation
Cocktails, desserts shine at new tavern
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina, was born with a silver spoon in its mouth.
The first of two dining venues to open in the sleek new Four Seasons hotel in Baltimore, the restaurant was conceived in collaboration with Mina, the well-respected San Francisco chef whose domain extends to the very good Bourbon Steak in Washington. He, in turn, hired some local notables to staff the open kitchen of what was designed to be a Twitter-era tavern, among them Chris Ford, best known for his handiwork at Trummer’s on Main.
Did I mention the place looks onto the water? Assets ahoy!
Wit & Wisdom sprang onto the scene in November with so many advantages, it’s hard for this diner to sit through the disappointing reality: bland food, tepid food, food that doesn’t materialize until you ask for it a second time. (Seriously, only one kind of oyster on the chalkboard menu? In Maryland?) There’s memorable cooking to be explored here, especially for meat- and sweets-eaters, but Wit & Wisdom’s slips put a stain on the names of the hosts.
You’ll want to start with a drink from the bar and maybe even sip it there; the oval wood counter with its view of the Inner Harbor is a beaut. Hold off on the bar bites, however. Every snack I’ve tried tastes like a missed opportunity. Lobster corn dogs come with a mustard dip that gets a workout once you taste the pink fluffs made of batter and seafood that are so subtle, they could be anything. Glassy chicken wings flecked with benne seeds are all crackle and no pop. A spin on a local custom, the “coddies” appear to be designed for people who don’t like fish. It doesn’t help that these fried balls of cod and potato are also underseasoned.
Gulp. That’s the sound of a man who appreciates Wit & Wisdom’s craft cocktails all the more. My current steadies involve saffron-infused gin, honey, orange bitters and fresh thyme (The Company) and Jim Beam, smoked maple syrup and Fernet Branca, a brand of Italian bitters (Sticky Wicket).
Wit & Wisdom was named to convey a sense of fun and informality, Mina says, themes that are reinforced on a menu divided into dishes that are "Griddled in cast iron skillets," cooked on an "Oak-fired grill" and "Slow-cooked - braised." Charred squid, a first course, fits in lots of fun flavors: smoke from the grill, tang from Meyer lemon puree, and celery in the form of pale green leaves and shaved ribs. The garland of ingredients is terrific when it's served hot, which is not always the case.
Everything's right about the
artichoke salad. The pared and sliced vegetable, splashed with vinaigrette and propped up in repeating dollops of goat cheese spread, is prettily garnished with thinly sliced red onion and sugar snap peas.
Duck tongues make a surprise cameo on the menu. Cooked in their own fat, the tiny tenders decorate the surface of an appetizer of Carolina gold rice that picks up more richness from an egg yolk and crunch from cracklings. The savory porridge resembles an exalted version of Chinese congee.
The two savory standouts among the main courses are the chicken and the pork. The bird, crisp of skin and succulent of flesh, comes with a bread salad sweetened with raisins that brings to mind the world-class roast chicken served at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. The pork is a three-way party of crisp belly, grilled loin and bacon framed with mustard greens shot through with cider vinegar.
I’d appreciate the pepper-stoked, smoke-perfumed rib-eye steak more if the beef didn’t come to the table pre-sliced. Skate surrounded with roasted cauliflower is so salty that none of us takes more than two bites. Except for the hash browns coaxed from sunchokes, side dishes (mac and cheese, roasted beets) mostly underwhelm.
From curb to host stand to table and back, the staff members of this enterprise win points for enthusiasm. They are not, however, uniformly efficient. A request for bread, which is not brought out unless beckoned, has to be made twice before a basket appears. Wine glasses are removed from the table just before the sommelier shows up with a bottle for tasting. On my most recent visit, an order of coddies shows up as we are eating our main courses, even though we began dinner with it. This might matter less if the setting were the Cheesecake Factory, but it’s the Four Seasons, where the bison tenderloin goes for $44.
The dining areas flow from one to the next and capture a view of the chefs at work and dancing flames. Picture lots of light, sufficient space between tables, tall ceilings and a color scheme that leans to the natural. White brick walls, moss-green banquettes and lit lanterns place you in one very handsome pub.
Credit for the most consistent course goes to Ford for his sweet architecture. Whether it’s a chocolate “Baltimore Bar” embedded with shards of pretzels and caramelized nuts, an elegant banana cream puff staged with coconut tapioca, or a pink still life of rhubarb and strawberries gathered on fromage blanc, his edible art is easy on the eyes. Coffee from Lamill (the boutique roaster has a shop in the hotel) is good to the last drop.
Shortly before this review went to press, Mina reached out to say he intended to name a new executive chef. Whoever ends up tending the fire at Wit & Wisdom has some serious polishing ahead of him.