Great food is often a collaboration of all the senses, favorably colored by the memorable experiences of our youth. Your mother's warm brownies, the fresh crabs you caught during your first family vacation to the beach, that old pizza dive you used to terrorize once you got your license. Years later, the actual food from those food memories doesn't always live up to itself. It wasn't the pizza that stood out, it was the experience that you remember so fondly. And that is where the senses come in. So much of what we taste when we dine out is flavored by ambience, decor, service - even the way food is described to us hues our experience.
Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen is the sum of all those parts. Sure, the food is great and there's a highlight on local and sustainable farm-fresh ingredients, but Woodberry Kitchen elevates its great food into a quintessential dining experience that appeals to all of the senses.
Visually, the dining area is an architectural delight. Exposed brick reaches towards the tall ceilings of this historic mill where light streams into the restaurant through lofted windows. The restaurant is a comfortable, rustic and casual sort of elegant. The servers were uniformly hip, all boasting an extensive knowledge of the menu with a focus on the farms providing ingredients for our feast. It's no wonder Bon Appetit magazine named this one of the country's ten best new restaurants in 2009.
Our bread and drinks soon arrived. Crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, the bread (below, left) tasted fresh from the oven while our drinks offered clever spins on the classics. The Gov't Mule (below, right) is what you get when you make a Moscow Mule with Prairie Organic Vodka, house-made ginger beer, and lime-ginger syrup. Served in copper mug, it offers up folksy goodness with a hard-edge, much like the Allman Brothers side project its name pays homage to. For its Hibiscus Margarita (below, right), the restaurant surprisingly makes their hibiscus tequila in house, combining it with agave sour mix, triple sec and a sea salt rim for a welcomed twist.
Perhaps my favorite part of Woodberry Kitchen is the playfulness of the menu. Not confined to the traditions of entrees and appetizers, Woodberry lets you munch on even smaller samples from their kitchen with a portion of the menu devoted to 'Snacks'. How about a little Ladyfinger Popcorn from Lancaster County for $1? Or maybe a Smoked Onion dip for just $3? We got 3 of the mini-offerings, starting with the Deviled Eggs, which were served with chipped ham (below, left) for $4. The eggs were instantly entered into the running for best Deviled Eggs I've ever had. We also nibbled on a jar of smoked pecans (below, right) which went surprisingly well when added to the eggs on my own improvisation, and radishes with creamery butter and sea salt (below, right).
In another show of playfulness, my salad was called Adolescent Lettuces - Keys to the Car, Broken Curfew (below). The juvenile greens were served with shaved pork belly, goat cheese, fresh croutons and a very simple, zesty dressing. We whipped these delinquent leaves into shape in no time.
Angela found an appetizing special, ordering John the Butcher's plate. The plate brimmed with an assorted mess of pancetta, tasso ham, pork belly, chorizo and was rounded out by some Mangalitza Lardo Crouton, rhubarb compote and house pickles. Perhaps we'd gotten a little carried away, but this savory starter cemented our descent ascent into pork overload.
Continuing my assault on the kingdom of pig, I ordered the slow-roasted pork shoulder (below), with sweet potatoes, kale, and pork gravy, it came topped with a mouth-watering fried egg. Rather than serving 'Entrees' on the menu, Woodberry offers 'Supper' and this rich and hearty dish with its fall-apart-in-your-mouth pork is exactly what I think of when I think of sitting down for supper.
Angela stuck with the specials menu, getting the Hook, Line, and Snowy Grouper for her meal. It was served with leeks, roasted ramps, and mushrooms. I should've known she'd get it - Angela is a leek-eating machine. There was a nice contrast between the crisp skin and the flaky, delicately flavored meat. The accompanying vegetables were subtle enough to really let the grouper shine.
We were both full of farm-fresh foods but had to at least try one of the desserts. The Peanut Butter Cup (below) was served with a rich peanut butter cream, dark chocolate, caramel, whipped cream, and ladyfinger cracker jacks. It was just the right portion for a dessert this rich and sweet and I love the simplicity and (again with that word) playfulness of the concept.
As many things as we devoured, I left feeling like we'd hardly put a dent in the menu. Woodberry Kitchen is also known for their fresh oysters, flatbreads and creative espresso drinks. It's the culture at places like this that put me in the mood to eat, and now that I've been, I have new food memories to hold on to. The food was darn good, but was it the best food I've ever had? I guess that's kind of beside the point.
Woodberry Kitchen isn't just a destination if you're in Baltimore. As two DC-ites who tend to stick close to home, we both agreed that Woodberry Kitchen alone is worth the hour drive up I-95. If there is a dining experience like this in DC, I would love for someone to show me what rock it's been hiding beneath. If you do find yourself in the Hampden neighborhood of North Baltimore, be sure to save a little time to wander the vicinity of the restaurant. The architecture of the revitalized old foundry and mills in the surrounding Clipper Mill area is as unique and astonishing as the experience.