This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide as No. 10 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
10. Old Maryland Grill
The most original restaurant in College Park encourages you to buy local. Look, then, for crab cakes built from the waters of the Eastern Shore (and just a hint of Old Bay) and coddies sure to slap a smile on the face of those who grew up on the rounds of fish and potato, fried to a shade of gold and eaten on a cracker (house-baked in this case). Small details make big impressions in the 250-seat sprawl, fused to the snazzy Hotel at the University of Maryland. The cocktail list devotes space to drinks that originated in the state, the old photos above the open kitchen capture tomato farmers and canners from around Maryland, the whipped potatoes and peppery gravy rival their crackling fried chicken, and saltwater taffy might accompany the check. If the service reminds you you’re in the shadow of a college, and a few dishes miss (meatloaf sports the crumbly texture of scrapple), customers have to admire how the owner and chef — Mike Franklin and Joshua Laban Perkins, respectively — bridge old with new: Sharing the menu are a sandwich that pays tribute to classic St. Mary’s stuffed ham and a vegetarian riff on Ethiopian steak tartare.
Old Maryland Grill: 7777 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301-955.3413. oldmarylandgrill.com.
Open: Breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Monday through Friday, brunch weekends.
Prices: Breakfast mains $6 to $24, lunch mains $13 to $24, dinner mains $13 to $39, brunch $6 to $24.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2018:
The following review was originally published Nov. 1, 2017.
At Old Maryland Grill, every night is homecoming
Mike Franklin, whose eponymous family-friendly restaurant in Hyattsville added a brewery to its recipe in 2002, likes to joke that he opens a new restaurant every 15 years. All I can say after eating at his recent gift to College Park, adjacent to the chic new Hotel at the University of Maryland, is this: Don’t wait so long to open another place to eat, especially if it’s an answer to a dilemma in the area.
The debut of Old Maryland Grill, which welcomes the home team with a copper terrapin shell in its foyer, means locals don’t have to trek to the District, Bethesda or Annapolis when they want finer than pub grub. Better yet, the arrival is a showcase for regional cooking (when’s the last time you saw St. Mary’s County stuffed ham on a menu?) from a chef, Joshua Laban Perkins, whose research and development involved poring over old cookbooks and enlisting a blue-ribbon panel of farmers and other producers.
Ready to hit the road? Let me state from the start: Old Maryland Grill won’t be mistaken for Woodberry Kitchen or the Dabney, two of the Mid-Atlantic’s most passionate ingredient hunters. The service in these early days is greener than green, well-intentioned but also hesitant and hit and miss. “Good evening,” a server says — at Sunday brunch. When someone asks for a gimlet, another young waiter’s brow furrows. And on.
Still, I’m willing to forgive lapses in service in light of the kitchen’s good work, evident up front with a bread basket filled with rolls and corn bread. Much of what follows — crab cakes, pork chops — reveals a kitchen that doesn’t take shortcuts and lets the ingredients do their thing with a minimum of fuss (to the point of under-salting on occasion). The crab cakes, for instance, are a loose combination of lump and jumbo-lump seafood held together with egg whites and a murmur of Old Bay Seasoning. The coleslaw that tags along is rough-cut and stinging rather than sweet — my preference. As for the pork chops, they’re cut thick and perfumed with smoke, shored up with green beans that crackle with the help of toasted peanuts.
The collection of snacks appears to be lifted from a church supper or county fair. Hush puppies, warm and fluffy, arrive in a little pyramid, their light corn flavor juxtaposed with pepper jam, and button-size country ham biscuits — one is just a tease, two are better — get amped up with a dab of yellow mustard. Coddies are the size of saucers and paired with house-baked crackers for a convincing taste of classic Baltimore. The selection of oysters brings out our baser beings. I dare you to ask for a combo platter of “Sweet Jesus” and “Little B----es” with a straight face, given the waiter’s penchant for repeating everything back.
Only if you don’t know the area, home to one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the country, will an appetizer of kitfo on the menu come as a surprise. The chef’s homage to the community swaps in smoked chopped beets for the traditional raw minced beef but otherwise, the dish tastes on point, seasoned with all the accents — cardamom, mitmita, herbed butter — that make Ethiopia’s answer to steak tartare so compelling. On his way to work from Northern Virginia, the chef stops by Merkato in Springfield to pick up injera, the floppy-tangy bread that distinguishes the cuisine from all others. In College Park, he cuts the injera into squares and crisps them in the oven to make scoops.
The pride and joy of St. Mary’s County — stuffed ham — is offered only at lunch or brunch. Schedule your visit accordingly for the glorious ham sandwich, bulked up with kale and cabbage and served between thick slices of toasted white bread. Yes, you’ll be wearing lip gloss courtesy of house-made mayonnaise on the toast. “That’s a hungry-student sandwich,” a companion says, eyeing the monster and its mountain of hot french fries. The cool ham, the hot bread and the peppery greens are serious fuel, even if you’re not playing soccer or cramming for a test.
The restaurant casts a wide net, hoping to snare fish lovers with fried blue catfish, the steak crowd with juicy, crusty rib-eye, as well as champions of the buy-local mantra. “The chicken comes from a local coop,” a waiter says as he drops off a plate of fried chicken. As much as I appreciate the news, the entree pretty much sells itself with its fine, crisp skin and steaming flesh. Your cardiologist wouldn’t sign off on the accompanying buttery whipped potatoes and pitcher of white gravy, but your rubber arm might.
Perkins, 44, who last cooked at the now-shuttered L’Hommage Bistro Francais in Washington, does well by modern, too, evinced by rockfish served with aromatic jasmine rice and a broth of oxtail jus sharpened with lemon grass and red curry.
Old Maryland Grill sports a new-car smell and a look to match. The vast, 250-seat expanse includes a bistrolike bakery area, a high-ceilinged, brick-walled “campus” room overlooking the university and a “mural” room that whimsically depicts state landmarks. The most attractive destination is the private Belvedere room, named for the dowager Baltimore hotel, with sage-colored walls, saffron-hued lights and an Edwardian-era Tiffany cash register on display behind glass. If some of the design borders on the corporate, the cooking helps personalize breakfast, lunch or dinner. Another local touch: salt water taffy from Ocean City with the check.
Hats off to Franklin for sampling his way through 40 or so state wineries in the course of assembling the wine list, and for offering the choices by the half-glass as well as the five-ounce pour. (Cool Ridge cabernet franc from Hagerstown does a nice job of bridging a mix of fish and meat here.) The entire beverage list shows thought, running from small craft beers (think Diamondback and Steinhardt) to the simple mocktails that have included sour cherry mixed with plum.
“We’re definitely a save-room-for-dessert kind of place,” says Franklin, a regular presence in the dining room. Pastry chef Annie Clemmons finishes what she starts with her bread basket by offering desserts that are true to the area. Loveliest of all is the towering Smith Island cake. “The traditional one is 12 layers,” a server says. “Ours is 10, but it’s just as tasty.” The only thing I’m counting as I fork into the moist yellow cake laminated with chocolate-
fudge frosting are the days until I can come back and repeat the pleasure.
Old Maryland Grill has some work to do, mostly on the service front, but ordering local tends
to fulfill the promise of its initials.