Shoo-Fly, Spike Gjerde’s new Baltimore diner, falls flat

November 26, 2013

Gathering volunteer stomachs for recent road trips to Baltimore and a taste of one of its latest attractions was a snap. All I had to do was say the magic words — Spike Gjerde — and carpools followed.

One of the Mid-Atlantic’s best-known chefs, Gjerde is revered by food fans for his relationships with the people who grow, fish and forage for his menu at the bucolic Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, where the cooking is framed in a beauty of a barn and the service flows smooth and sweet.

Past is prologue, right? No sooner was I behind the wheel and headed north than I began mentally to eat my way through the meatloaf and apple pie awaiting us at Shoo-Fly Diner in Belvedere Square. Gjerde doing “farmhouse” diner food (via chef Patrick Crooks) in a onetime shoe store would be my early Christmas gift to readers; everything I saw walking into the place appeared to affirm my starry hopes.

Warm welcome at the door? Yep.

Mason jars arranged to glow with the word DINER in the background? Done.

Behind the front bar are young makers of drinks that tap into the scene’s current fascination with slushes and nogs, the latter whipped up using soft-serve ice cream. A stool at one of the two trim U-shaped counters downstairs lets guests spy into the kitchen. As a sign of how kid-friendly these 5,000 square feet are, almost every seat was taken by young families shortly after opening time on a recent Saturday — and what restaurant besides Chuck E. Cheese’s stocks a playroom? Along with salt and pepper on the table, patrons can reach for the diner’s house-made “Snake Oil.”

To my eventual dismay, that bottle of fish peppers and cider vinegar gets a serious workout here. The condiment turns out to be among the few edible charms at Shoo-Fly Diner, one of the biggest dining bafflements of the year, right down there with La Tagliatella.

Signs of trouble surface early in the meal, with a “4 o’clock” Manhattan so sweet it could stand in for a cordial. Chopped beets and goat cheese nestle in a squat Mason jar (cute), but one forkful of the cloying vegetable and the bland fromage is one bite too much for this diner. “A Big Salad” lives up to the hype, size-wise, but the mound is mostly greens with chopped boiled egg and some pink streaks of ham, with mere traces of the advertised Asian pear, peanuts or goat cheese. Helping to salvage the bowl is a citrusy dressing of verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes. Slices of crisp delicata squash, a snack served with blue cheese dip, taste simply and vaguely fried.

A trio of deviled eggs sprinkled with crumbled bacon make a better beginning, but seriously, have you ever had a really bad deviled egg?

I want to bolt. But then Patsy Cline starts singing, and an order of buffalo oysters is set before me. The fried snack draped in hot sauce slaps my tongue awake, and a baton of pickled radish, a stinging garnish, helps keep me interested. Surely there is more like this balanced dish on a menu from Gjerde and crew.

Cue a cast-iron skillet supporting half of a fried chicken, complete with a curled foot that might take some eaters aback. The strapping entree, one of five “large plates,” turns into a Norman Rockwell still life with a sauce boat of pepper gravy and a barge of braised greens. The chicken is piping hot and super juicy; the greens smack more of salt than vinegar. A wedge of tan corn bread helps right the wrong in the vignette.

No other big plate proves as likable. Not the sliced meatloaf, which we try to resuscitate with some of that Snake Oil. Not the wet and hardly “blackened” catfish, a soulless piece of fish with a side of overly rich cole slaw. “Dutch Style” chicken stew is a lot of ingredients — carrots, chicken, elbow macaroni — that appear to be meeting in their bowl for the first time and do not promote tourism to Amsterdam. “Who has the Snake Oil?” becomes the question on everyone’s mind.

Lots of creamy crab spilling from a toasted bun makes for a respectable crab roll, but skip the blank potato chips piled nearby.

Service is pleasant enough, but minders seem to disappear just as they’re needed.

Sadly, the more time I spend at Shoo-Fly, the further it feels from Woodberry Kitchen. Oddly, condiments are the joint’s best moments, but a guy can eat only so much tartar sauce and verjus dressing.

While I want another drink for dessert, I have a professional obligation to eat sweets, and who knows? Maybe
a place named Shoo-Fly saves its best for last.

On a return visit, a server grows quiet when we ask him about the signature slice. “It’s not my favorite,” he shares. My posse ends up agreeing with him: Molasses flavored with coffee under a dusting of white crumbs is more of a curiosity than anything. Chocolate “chiffon” pie is a misnomer for a pastry that appears to have been made with chocolate-flavored cement. Meanwhile, the many-layered $1,000 Apple Pie would be a find ... in a vending machine. Ice cream gives the dry recipe the moisture it begs for.

Shoo-Fly? Don’t bother.

1/2 star

(Poor)
Shoo-Fly Diner

510 E. Belvedere, Ave., Baltimore. 410-464-9222.

OPEN:
4 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

PRICES:
Snacks $4 to $9, salads and sandwiches $6
to $16, large plates $13 to $20.

SOUND CHECK:
75 decibels/
Must speak
with raised voice.

Whee!

Shoo-Fly occupies the building that once housed Hess Shoes.
A short indoor slide, used by children, is all that remains of the business.

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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