Woodberry Tavern review: Big flavors in a small space in Baltimore

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My mantra during the pandemic: never assume.

Never assume a restaurant will be open on a Monday or Tuesday. Never assume that you can go to a restaurant without a reservation, even if it’s 5:30 am. Never assume that a restaurant you loved before the world turned upside down hasn’t morphed into something else since your last date.

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I got a lump in my throat as my companions and I turned onto the street that led to Baltimore’s beloved Woodberry Kitchen. The light was on in the great barn of a dining room, but not a soul was in it. The front door was open (phew!) but lacked any sign of staff (uh oh!) even though we were in time for a Sunday night reservation.

Did I show up on the wrong date?

My question was answered when a host appeared from a side room near the entrance and informed us that his team was still meeting and we would be shown inside in a few moments.

“We’ve turned the restaurant into a function space and the function space into a restaurant,” says Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef at what I’ve always called the Chez Panisse of the mid-Atlantic. In a phone conversation after my last visit, he said the pandemic has allowed him to reconsider his vision of the way customers order in the busy, multi-level dining room of a former factory – gone is the poster-sized menu of yesteryear – down to the employees were paid.

A $50 Manhattan? Welcome to the era of “innocent fun”.

Replacing a former private room, the Woodberry Tavern is a much more intimate dining experience than the once-busy Woodberry Kitchen, which now has tables arranged in neat, party-ready rows and lacks the picture’s signature wood-burning stove. Inside the tavern, knotty wood panels accent the soaring brick walls, and amber votive candles cast a warm glow. Reservations are required for the dining room, which only seats 22, but not for the cozy bar, although on my visit all six stools were occupied within minutes of opening.

Gjerde, who is known for sourcing ingredients locally, says he has relaxed some of his previous dictates. “It’s hard to say that someone who’s booked a wedding here doesn’t get a lime for their gin and tonic.” Still, the restaurant continues to sweat the details, right down to the hand-harvested salt that JQ Dickinson Salt-Works in West Virginia buys.

Diners who miss the days when complimentary bread baskets were the norm in many restaurants will be blown away by the welcome at the Woodberry Tavern, which is delivered on a handsome walnut tray custom-made by a former bartender.

There will be dinner and a show on the Kennedy Center rooftop

“Just a thank you for coming out tonight,” says a waiter as he introduces the crowd: fennel salami from Loudoun County, Virginia, Gouda from Pennsylvania, pickles made punchy with premium Keewell Vinegar, and puff pastry – Homemade cheese sticks and spelled bread. (Do guests have to order after the indoor picnic? The generosity also fits in with a selection of delicious smoked trout.) Chef Steven Kenny, who has worked for Gjerde for almost five years, has plans to launch homemade bresaola, air-cured beef, in the near future. The premium is basically a primer for the restaurant, which launched in 2007 and demonstrates its commitment to local ingredients and hospitality.

It’s hard not to compare what is with what was. When he started at Woodberry Kitchen, Kenny was one of “nine cooks in an open kitchen with a wood-burning stove,” says the 32-year-old chef, who is from Calvert County, Maryland and whose previous credits include Mintwood Place in Washington and Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, both now closed. At the tavern, he is one of “three people using a stove” and a charcoal grill, out of sight of their audience.

The script may be smaller, but the choice shows ingenuity. Do you suffer from sweet potato soup fatigue? The Tavern’s biscuit revives the passion with a mashed white sweet potato, cream, onion and garlic, with an island of crab, chervil and crushed hickory floating on one side, reminiscent of pecans. Welsh rarebit – toast with cheese sauce – is also given a glamorous treatment. When the guests cut into a “vase” of toasted spelled bread with mustard beer cheese, a boiled egg and ham surprisingly appear.

I’ve lost count of how much beef tartare I’ve eaten over the past few years, so many restaurants serve the dish, which is a handy way for chefs to use up steak and other ingredients. Woodberry Tavern is jumping on the bandwagon with a version that’s beefed up with patrons in mind. But the kitchen also makes a vegetarian version, swapping the meat for brilliant Kyoto carrots. Flavored with bay leaf, white soy and coriander, the ground carrots taste as vibrant as they look. A puddle of lemony onion puree on the side adds a nice touch, as do vinegar-laced potato chips that double as scoops.

“Oyster Service” should be mandatory for seafood lovers. Ruby salts from Virginia’s lower east coast are presented stir-fried with a stirring ramp tartar sauce; roasted with cheese, garlic and the restaurant’s signature snake oil, a hot sauce infused with local fish peppers; and on ice, lightened up with Meyer lemon and chili crisp. The spectacle rivals the welcome board, where the oysters are displayed in cast-iron jars on a wooden slab.

Soaked in buttermilk before roasting, the chicken is very good when topped with pillowy ricotta dumplings, puffed up with the help of homemade onion jam, fresh thyme and grated nutmeg and tucked among meaty mushrooms in its bowl. Scavengers will appreciate the tender and fluffy pork version, whose richness is foiled with mustard cream.

The only clue to the meal’s yield was a rock bass roasted in miso on top of pea sprouts, diced potatoes and steamed clams. The combination tasted bland compared to the other starters.

The appearance of a candle signals the impending arrival of baked Alaska, shaped like a beehive, made with ginger pie and cranberry ice cream and spritzed with rum before the light show. Again in fashion, baked Alaska is also the “Marcia! Maria! Maria!” by Desserts. Watch out for the Valrhona chocolate tart, though, which comes in a thin and buttery pastry shell and is topped with a lovely scoop of sour cherry ice cream.

The bill comes with an additional service charge of 23 percent and a statement that it “will be used to provide fair, consistent wages and benefits to all employees.” I like not having to do math after dinner and I appreciate it when people get paid for a job well done.

Woodberry Tavern is a smaller, quieter version of Restaurant Gjerde, which opened 16 years ago. But it’s no less ambitious and a reason to tune your GPS to proven DNA.

2010 Clipper Park Road, Baltimore. www.woodberrykitchen.com. Open for indoor dining from Wednesday to Sunday from 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Prices: Appetizers $15-19, entrees $27-$67 (for rib eye). Soundcheck: 75 decibels/Must speak in a raised voice. Accessibility: No access barriers; ADA-approved restrooms. Pandemic Protocols: Masks and vaccinations are optional for staff.

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