No question, Chris Amendola has a thing for mushrooms. The tables in his restaurant, Foraged in Baltimore, take on the feel of a forest with all the wooden sculptures of fungi.
Mushrooms and pork also get lots of play on the menu. One of the chef’s longtime signatures is mushroom stew composed with housemade ricotta, toasted pine nuts and a poached egg to prick and sauce the event, which currently relies on a trio of cultivated mushrooms but can swell to more than a dozen in August. Meanwhile, a diner can start a meal with everything but the squeal of a pig. A recent selection — cheeks, jowl, chin, snout, tongue, spare rib, kidney — read like an anatomy chart.
Foraged made its debut in the Hampden neighborhood at the end of 2017 and relocated to the heart of the city’s arts district four years later. From the start, Amendola, who has cooked up and down the East Coast, has billed the restaurant as “hyper-seasonal.” (He says he detests the overused “farm-to-table” verbiage, especially when a place has “pineapple on the menu.”) The chef’s preferred description takes into account the black-walnut syrup he taps from trees on the restaurant’s farm in Freeland, north of Baltimore, in winter and the fiddlehead ferns he collects for just a few weeks in early spring.
“Baltimore still or sparkling Italian?” asks a host who has a little fun with the inevitable water question. The next inquiry (“Cocktails?”) should be followed with something clever from the bar. The simply billed Black Walnut lets you explore the aforementioned syrup in an elegant blend of bourbon, sparkling wine and byrrh, the old-school French aperitif.
Servers tell you the portions are restrained. Sure enough, most dishes are sized like appetizers, or a bit bigger. “After three bites, I want to taste something different,” says Amendola. When he dines out, he tends to order a bunch of first courses so he can “taste a little bit of a lot.” His inclination is mine, and probably the way more of us should be eating anyway, but not everyone will delight in what elsewhere might pass as kid-size meals. (Be sure to get some bread. Foraged bakes its own sourdough focaccia, and the slices are presented warm and crusty, with whipped butter and sliced watermelon radishes. The assembly costs $8 and is worth it.)
Are people ordering the sundry pig parts? They are, says the chef, “possibly to be adventurous, maybe on a dare.” His choice cut is the snout, crisped in a cast-iron pan. I can vouch for the meaty, smoke-perfumed spare rib in mixed company and the kidney, served in a sleeve of pastry, by my lonesome. Whatever you get is presented with a trio of lightly pickled seasonal vegetables, foils for the porcine richness. The chef says some diners have questioned his pig photographs, which he displays in part because “an animal lost its life to feed you.” People forget where their food comes from, he says. Foraged wants to remind them — and succeeds.
There are quotation marks around crab cake here; Foraged swaps in lion’s mane mushrooms for the seafood. I was skeptical until I tried the plant-based twist on the local staple, a “crab cake” made convincing with saltines and eggs as binder and Old Bay as seasoning, but mostly thanks to those mushrooms, by turns crisp from the griddle and soft and seafood-like.
Lamb neck is a very Foraged thing to serve. A tough but tasty cut that requires long cooking, the neck is presented on a suggestion of creamy, skin-on potatoes and wilted scallions with a glossy sauce that takes three days to create and tastes worth the effort. Roseate duck breast is staged on a bean ragu, brightened with diced carrots and sweetened with onions; a few spoonfuls of duck jus, spiked with sherry vinegar, is further inducement to order the focaccia.
Maybe you’re in the mood for fish. Foraged promotes wild blue catfish, which the chef places on a creamy canvas of skin-on potatoes, carrots and oysters cooked just to warm them. His preference for blue catfish, or snakehead when he can get it, is Amendola’s way of “helping out the bay” by ridding local waters of invasive species.
Water glasses are refilled like clockwork, and the servers know their stuff. A question about one of the pork parts practically got me the recipe for how the kidneys are soaked in vinegar and braised with mirepoix before they’re stuffed into hand pies that leave the oven golden and flaky. But the pacing between courses can be off, and it might not be until you’re halfway through your appetizer that your drink shows up. Still, I appreciated the host pointing out happy hour deals to me on one visit, and kudos to the server who brought a paper menu when an older dining companion complained about the QR code that was initially set on the table.
Last year’s bounty finds a home in some of my favorite desserts, foremost preserved peaches paired with coffee cake, warm with baking spices and finished with whipped cream and crushed hazelnuts. The end of a meal is made sweeter with gratis chocolate chip cookies, small enough that they can be served in an oyster shell.
The restaurant’s focus on regional flavors puts it in the orbit of the recently reviewed Woodberry Tavern, also in Baltimore, although Foraged is a more modest venture. There are fewer “wow” moments here, but who says every meal away from home has to dazzle you? Sometimes, plain “good” fills the bill.
That’s not damning with faint praise, by the way. I was happy to make the trek from Washington every visit, eager to see what the chef was up to with his favorite staples. (Spring promises morels in the mix of mushrooms for the stew, FYI.)
The tall table next to the kitchen window provides a free cooking show for its occupants. Amendola says he installed the window so he could watch what was going on in the dining room. I hope the ambassador for Maryland sees a lot of us smiling.
1709 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-235-0035. foragedeatery.com. Open for indoor dining 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Prices: Small plates $8 to $28. Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can enter the restaurant from a door in the lobby of the building; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.