My dining companion at Preserve in Annapolis wants to order the deviled eggs. “For real?” I ask. For real, he says. Like reclaimed wood and “farm-to-table,” deviled eggs have overstayed their welcome at American restaurants, and I can’t imagine learning anything new from a plate of them here in Maryland’s capital.
Except that I do make a discovery: Minced turnips zapped with chili-garlic sauce add a kicky crunch to the all-American snack when they’re spooned into an egg-white cradle ahead of the mashed yolk.
Preserve is home to husband-and-wife Jeremy and Michelle Hoffman, the former chef de cuisine and a captain, respectively, of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. That nugget alone should whet your appetite. Throw in the low bar for most restaurants near the waterfront, and you’ve got even more of an excuse to start your engines and cruise over to Preserve.
The jars of pepper jelly, pickled ramps and preserved lemons on the shelves of the new attraction originated in the kitchen of Eve, where Hoffman was allowed to put up farm finds before he bid goodbye to his then-employer. The edible art helps explain Preserve’s name. So does the sense of community the couple hope to foster with their joint effort, launched in April.
If the snacks — spiced nuts, pickles, charcuterie — are mostly munches any regular restaurant-goer could predict, the appetizers mine the chef’s origins and interests. Hoffman grew up in Schnecksville in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Hence the peppery chicken “pot pie” that more closely resembles chicken soup with a liquid base made golden with saffron and egg noodles instead of a crust. There’s no missing a cover, not with noodles that sponge up the rich broth. A molten dip of bechamel, Swiss cheese and dried corn from Hoffman’s father’s garden makes for a funky fondue — tasty when slathered on thin slices of bread. Meanwhile, Preserve’s supple pierogis may be the most elegant version of the dumplings I’ve seen. Each of several envelopes is stuffed with mashed potato and cheddar cheese, dressed with caramelized onion and finished with snips of chives. Tufts of sour cream dusted with paprika further spiff up the plate.
Lest you get the feeling you’re paging through the Hoffman family photo album, along come some contemporary images, shrimp toast and pork lettuce wraps among them. The former, “Chesapeake dim sum,” show up bronzed, crisp and delicious beneath their stripes of Old Bay aioli. Lettuce is threatening to upstage bread as the protein wrapper of choice of late, and I count myself a fan of the greener — lighter and cooler — alternative. Lime-blasted ground pork, crushed nuts and cilantro in a frill of lettuce is a taco that speaks more to today than to tradition. Contemporary turns out to be mighty fine eating.
“Veg out” is a collection of meatless dishes that demonstrate a chef who walks the talk of fermentation. Picture small plates of kimchi, beet-pickled eggs and sauerkraut salad. Grilled asparagus is made intriguing with a puddle of smoked mustard vinaigrette and a drift of whipped feta.
If you want to get inside Hoffman’s head, order the pork and sauerkraut as your main course. Its staging — a ring of silken mashed potatoes around an alp of soft braised meat and lush cabbage — suggests a homey German meal by way of, well, Neuschwanstein Castle. Arriving just behind the feast is a little cup of ketchup, which is what the chef grew up slathering on his pork and sauerkraut at home and which he invites you to try at Preserve. (He’s not offended if you don’t touch the stuff, or if you ask instead for mustard.) But old habits die hard.
As substantial as the signature pork are the chef’s griddled rice cakes. Made with risotto rice, the cakes, crisp on top and smooth within, come with a heap of sunchoke chips that get their sass from harissa and lemon juice. A dollop of yogurt tempers the heat; a garnish of chickweed, its flavor akin to corn silk, adds summery freshness.
The dessert that calls to my inner Beaver Cleaver is the Tandy cake, a sponge cake spread with a veneer of peanut butter followed by chocolate icing. Served in squares, the confection begs for a glass of cold milk. Lemon bars, in contrast, cry out for less sugar and more precision. Frankly, the doughy squares taste like bake-sale rejects.
Roll-up windows near the entrance allow diners facing the street to feel as if they’re eating al fresco in good weather. Early evening sun and a breeze are a nice accompaniment to one of the cocktails dreamed up by Michelle Hoffman; tequila and smoked hot sauce in a mason jar full of ice and garnished with pickled red onion and pepper make for an eye-popping margarita. Opposite the bar with a dozen stools are white-washed brick and a long banquette whose handsome fabric could pass for sail cloth, a subtle salute to Annapolis. Even the restrooms exhibit playfulness, papered as their walls are with pages from the Farmer’s Almanac.
A paean to pickling and a clap for canning, Preserve nevertheless has “fresh” stamped all over it.
Location: 164 Main St., Annapolis, Md. 443-598-6920. www.preserve-eats.com.
Open: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $5 to $9, salads and sandwiches $11 to $15; dinner appetizers $7 to $15, main courses $19 to $29.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.