By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 20, 2011; W35
Think of a current restaurant trend, and Bluegrass is likely to embrace it.
Cool cocktails? Look no further than Aperol Bitters, a $10 blend of Scotch whisky, grapefruit juice, blood orange bitters and Aperol, a sweet ringer for Campari but with less punch.
House-made charcuterie? The restaurant buys whole pigs from area farms and breaks them down for bacon, cheeks and sausages.
Like so many modern American restaurants, Bluegrass, which breezed into South Baltimore last March, splices neighborliness with sophistication. Even a common red wine might be decantedat the table.
Patrick Morrow and Jorbie Clark are the executive chef and the operating partner, respectively, of the kinda-sorta-Southern destination, where they reprise the roles they played previously at the nearby Ryleigh's Oyster. The restaurant's theme is underscored by an extensive list of bourbons and by a palette of muted blues and greens -- and lots of warm wood -- conveying the outdoors inside.
Upstairs or down? There are bars on both levels, but if I want a pinch of privacy, my preference is the back of the ground floor. The rear dining room could have been whipped up by Martha Stewart. It's small and tidy, with a stone hearth and a cupboard whose chicken-wire door reveals sparkling stemware on the shelves. "Baltimore Big Sur," a friend sums up this corner of Bluegrass.
The menu is all about "bites": small, medium, large, lighter (think sandwiches) and "more for your belly" (side dishes). Bread doesn't come with dinner, but for just a buck you can get corn bread. Its presentation in a black skillet, an oven mitt covering the handle, is worth the price of admission.
Among the other "small" bites are racy pimento cheese served with thin crackers rolled out by the kitchen, and fluffy-centered hush puppies in squiggle shapes rather than the expected balls. Shrimp and grits is described as light, although the Carolina beauties draped with smoked tomato gravy and onion stick to the ribs like Angelina on Brad.
With some notable exceptions, meat heads will be happy here. Morrow, 32, whose life has taken him to Texas and North Carolina, makes a pulled pork sandwich distinguished by a dry rub and crisp bits of shoulder meat, and a steak frites that pairs juicy rib-eye with a mess of hand-cut french fries. A pat of butter atop the beef and smoky catsup alongside the potatoes, fashionably fried in duck fat, contribute to the pleasure.
Bluegrass mixes crowd favorites with dishes that display big-city finesse. Heads-on shrimp are fixed up with hominy, sweet English peas and bits of ham: a pretty composition made elegant with a creamy curry sauce. As the menu progresses, the Southern accents are less evident. "We stray a lot," jests Morrow, a native of Richmond, who describes himself as a self-taught cook.
Some of the departures are delightful. Duck prosciutto, a "medium" bite, weaves across a plate of feathery mizuna (its bite is like that of arugula), toasted walnuts and tart marbles of compressed apple, everything drizzled with walnut oil. Among the entrees, or "large" bites, is a lovely chunk of pork loin crowned with lacy fried onions and elevated on a mash of white yams. Two brush strokes of sauce finish the arrangement: One is dark and sweet with raisins and sherry; the other is white and enriched with bacon fat.
Grilled venison gets jolts of flavor from a sour cherry sauce and features rutabagas twice, as "straws" (shoestrings) and as a puree sharpened with blue cheese. The lean red meat also appears in a Bolognese with gnocchi made from parsnips and grated cheese, a layering of ingredients that suggests a shepherd's pie by way of Italy. Both dishes would have been better had they not been served at a tepid-to-cool temperature that made me wonder if they had detoured to Alaska en route to the second-floor dining room. A noisy backdrop that Sunday in January didn't do the food any favors.
Despite all the hoopla about the charcuterie being created on location, the items I tried were convincing arguments for vegetarianism. Boudin blanc was muted, and a sausage of beef heart and apricots didn't taste of either ingredient. Just when you think there's nowhere else to go with bacon, along comes a "spreadable jam" made from dried cherries, bourbon, creme de cassis and the ingredient that shows no sign of exiting the national food stage. The dark and chunky condiment needs to follow Charlie Sheen's example and go into rehab.
Split dessert. The endings are abundant and satisfying, be they an intense chocolate mousse cake served with ice cream fueled by coffee and stout, or banana cream pie with ruffles of whipped cream.
None of this may be available to you if you make it to Bluegrass. Like a lot of forward-thinkers, the restaurant changes its menu with regularity. My advice, then, is to stay low to the ground, sip with confidence and eat like a Southerner.
Two stars (good)
1500 S. Hanover St., Baltimore. 410-244-5101. bluegrasstavern.com.
Open: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Major credit cards. Valet parking after 5 p.m. ($5).
Prices: Lunch appetizers $4 to $11, sandwiches and entrees $6 to $16; dinner appetizers $8 to $16, sandwiches and entrees $9 to $30.
Sound check: 86 decibels/Extremely loud.