My mantra throughout the pandemic: Never assume.
I got a lump in my throat as my companions and I turned onto the road leading to the beloved Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. The lights were on in the big barn of a dining room, but there wasn’t a soul inside. The front door was open (whew!), but signs of staff were absent (uh oh!) even though we were on time for a recent Sunday night reservation.
Did I show up on the wrong date?
My question was answered when a host popped out of a side room near the entrance and informed us that his team was still meeting and we’d be ushered inside in a few moments.
“We turned the restaurant into an event space and the event space into a restaurant,” says Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef of a dining destination that I’ve always thought of as the Chez Panisse of the Mid-Atlantic. In a phone conversation following my latest visit, he said the pandemic allowed him to rethink his vision, from how customers ordered in the bustling, multistory dining room, a former factory — gone is the poster-size menu of yore — to the way staffers were paid.
Woodberry Tavern, which replaces a former private room, is a much more intimate dining experience than the once-bustling Woodberry Kitchen, its tables now arranged in neat, party-ready rows, its signature wood oven missing from the picture. In the tavern, knotty wood panels punctuate the soaring brick walls, and amber votives cast a warm glow. Reservations are required for the dining room, a mere 22 seats, but not for the cozy bar, although all six stools were occupied within minutes of opening when I visited.
Gjerde, famous for sourcing ingredients from close by, says he’s relaxed some of his earlier dictates. “It’s hard to say to someone who’s booked a wedding here they can’t get a lime for their gin and tonic.” Still, the restaurant continues to sweat the details, down to the hand-harvested salt it buys from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in West Virginia.
Diners who miss the days when gratis bread baskets were the norm in a lot of restaurants will be bowled over by Woodberry Tavern’s welcome, delivered on a handsome walnut tray custom-made by a former bartender.
“Just a thank you for coming out tonight,” says a server as he introduces the lot: fennel salami from Loudoun County, Va., Gouda from Pennsylvania, pickles that get their punch from premium Keepwell vinegar, and puff pastry cheese wands and spelt bread baked in-house. (Are diners expected to order after the indoor picnic? The largesse also fits in a spread of luscious smoked trout.) Executive chef Steven Kenny, who has worked for Gjerde for almost five years, plans to offer housemade bresaola, air-dried beef, in the near future. The bounty is basically a primer for the restaurant, introduced in 2007, spelling out its commitment to local ingredients and hospitality.
It’s hard not to compare what is to what was. When he started at Woodberry Kitchen, Kenny was one of “nine cooks in an open kitchen with a wood oven,” says the chef, 32, a native of Calvert County, Md., whose past credits include Mintwood Place in Washington and the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, both now shuttered. At the tavern, he’s one of “three people using a range” and a charcoal grill, out of view of their audience.
The script might be smaller, but the choices show imagination. Suffering from sweet potato soup fatigue? The tavern’s bisque revives passion with a puree of white sweet potatoes, cream, onions and garlic, one side of which seems to float an island of crab, chervil and crushed hickory nuts, reminiscent of pecans. Welsh rarebit — toast with cheese sauce — gets the glam treatment, too. When diners cut into a “vase” of griddled spelt bread capped with mustardy beer cheese, a boiled egg and ham make surprise appearances.
I’ve lost track of how much beef tartare I’ve eaten in the last few years, so many restaurants are serving the dish, which is a handy way for chefs to use up steak and other trimmings. Woodberry Tavern jumps on the bandwagon with a version that’s whipped up in view of diners. But the kitchen also makes a vegetarian version, swapping in brilliant Kyoto carrots for the meat. Seasoned with bay leaf, white soy and coriander, the ground-to-order carrots taste as vivid as they look. A puddle of lemony onion puree to the side adds a nice tang, as do vinegar-spiked potato chips that double as scoops.
“Oyster Service” should be required eating for seafood enthusiasts. Ruby Salts from the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia are presented fried with a rousing ramp tartar sauce; roasted with cheese, garlic and the restaurant’s trademark Snake Oil, a hot sauce fueled with local fish peppers; and atop ice, brightened with Meyer lemon and chile crisp. The spectacle rivals that of the welcome board, with the oysters displayed in cast-iron vessels on a slab of wood.
Brined in buttermilk before frying, the chicken is very good, if upstaged by pillowy ricotta dumplings, swelled with the help of housemade onion jam, fresh thyme and grated nutmeg and tucked among meaty mushrooms in its bowl. Schnitzel hounds will appreciate the tender and puffy pork version, its richness foiled with mustard cream.
The only yield sign of the meal was a miso-roasted rockfish poised on pea shoots, diced potatoes and steamed clams. The combination tasted wan in comparison with the other entrees.
The appearance of a candle signals the imminent arrival of baked Alaska, shaped like a beehive, constructed with ginger cake and cranberry ice cream, and splashed with rum ahead of the light show. Newly fashionable again, baked Alaska is also the “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” of desserts. Pay attention to the Valrhona chocolate tart, though, set in a thin and buttery pastry shell and enhanced with a lovely scoop of sour cherry ice cream.
The bill arrives with a 23 percent service charge added, and the explanation that it’s “used to provide equitable, consistent wages and benefits for all employees.” I like not having to do math after a meal, and I appreciate seeing people paid for jobs well done.
Woodberry Tavern is a smaller, quieter version of the restaurant Gjerde opened 16 years ago. But it’s no less ambitious, and every bit a reason for setting your GPS for some time-tested DNA.
2010 Clipper Park Rd., Baltimore. woodberrykitchen.com. Open for indoor dining 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: appetizers $15 to $19, main courses $27 to $67 (for rib-eye). Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entrance; ADA-approved restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks and vaccinations are optional for staff.