Chesapeake reborn, but nothing like the original


(Marge Ely/For The Washington Post)
September 3, 2013

Baltimore’s original Chesapeake restaurant opened in 1933 and became famous for food — crab Imperial, beef steaks — that garnered a nod from the early American restaurant critic Duncan Hines. The city’s swells gravitated to the Chesapeake’s Lamplighter Room, which featured a fireplace, and its Pen and Quill Lounge, furnished with a piano. A fire in 1974 marked the beginning of the end for the 300-seat dining destination, which endured several foreclosures and auctions and eventually went dark in 1989.

The new, 150-seat Chesapeake, which occupies only a slice of the former site, began welcoming diners in June. For the sake of comparison, I asked a Baltimore native to tag along for dinner.

He didn’t recognize the space, which opens with a marble bar backed with white subway tiles and finds burnt-orange beams criss-crossing the ceiling and tall tables filling out the room. What appears to be a giant postcard depicting a long-ago Baltimore harbor better summons the past.

My companion from Charm City glanced at the menu, which counts ricotta gnocchi, shrimp and grits and a vegan burger among the main dishes. “Nothing from the original but the name,” he said. And sighed.

Owner Mauro Daigle says initial reaction to the second Chesapeake was “mixed,” but he’s quick to defend the new vision. The restaurateur says “there’s no market” for more fine-dining establishments in Baltimore, where he also owns the Milk & Honey Market. “It would be impossible” to duplicate the expansive original, which occupied five former town houses. At the same time, Daigle says he wants to connect his Chesapeake to the region and “try to be very respectful” of the first restaurant’s memory.

Chef Jordan Miller, 28, has fun with his “snacks,” a menu category that includes rosemary-spiked nuts tossed with zesty oyster crackers — Baltimore’s answer to Chex Mix — and “fries with eyes,” crackling, finger-length fried smelt served with a tarragon-rich tartar sauce. Chesapeake’s well-crafted cocktails make nice companions to the nibbles.

I’m far less impressed with the crab cake, which comes with an unexpected, and unwelcome, crunch: “Cornflakes,” the chef shares as his secret ingredient, which should be dropped from the dish. Pork belly emphasizes way more fat than flesh, roast chicken has a crisp skin and carrot puree going for it and steamed clams get a lift from smoked tomatoes and beer.

A cheerful staff tempers the disappointment of the nostalgia buff at the table.

One of the few blasts from the past is a “snowball” cake, coconut cake with chocolate ganache and a blizzard of toasted coconut. But it, too, has been updated. Back in the day, no one ate the signature with cocoa sorbet.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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