Eating Through the Northeast
The pleasures of these five cities are in what you can eat and drink, as well as what you can see.
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An army travels on its stomach, and so do the rest of us. Let us be your guide to some of the latest dining and drinking thrills to be found in five great cities of the Northeast.
Baltimore: Escape Claws
Crab, crab, crab. That’s traditionally the first subject that comes up when discussing dining in Baltimore: where to find the best steamed hard-shell blue crabs, crab cakes—with Old Bay seasoning or without—soft-shell crabs, crab fluff; you name it. (For the record, crab cakes are even sold at the gourmet concessions counter of the local Landmark Theatre independent movie house.) If travel advisers like Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Roadfood.com and The New York Times are good enough for you, you’ll head straight to Obrycki’s Crab House and Seafood Restaurant, famed since 1944 not only for its crustaceans, but for its secret, unique spice mix. There you can argue with the locals whether it’s really as good as L.P. Steamers or Bo Brooks.
I’m pleased to say that I spent a whole weekend eating my way through Baltimore without letting a single crab pass my lips—well, I suppose I had a taste here and there—and felt not a whit shortchanged. There’s literally something for every taste and something new a-borning all the time, from artisanal pizza (at Al Pacino Café) to fabulous Middle Eastern exotica (once you taste the bread and hummus at Lebanese Taverna, you’re hooked forever). Perhaps the best place to get your bearings is Timothy Dean’s Bistro, in the historic district of Fell’s Point.
Considered one of the Northeast’s pre-eminent gastronomes, Dean cut his teeth as a sous chef to Jean- Louis Palladin at Jean-Louis Restaurant in Washington, D.C. (he later became chef de cuisine at another Watergate Hotel restaurant, Palladin) and working with three-star Michelin chef Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo. After several restaurant partnerships, he opened the bistro in early 2005. Contemporary American-French cuisine is the focus, and Dean, being a congenial sort, opens his doors for regular cooking demonstrations (at $55 a head), a little like having Tiger Woods try to teach you to play golf as expertly as he does. Your spirit may be willing, but your mojo weak. Nevertheless, our group was shown how to prepare, and then invited to dine on, exquisite butter-poached Maine lobster with black truffles over macaroni and cheese, 24-hour braised short rib with wasabi mashed potatoes and pinot noir sauce, and pumpkin crème brûlée.
Wine-tasting at Cinghiale, an osteria/enoteca that emulates the ambience of restaurants of Milan and Bologna in the 1950s and ’60s, was a similarly edifying experience. Cinghiale’s wine list carries 400 labels (with 40 wines by the glass) from Northern and Central Italy; we took a guided tour of 12 whites and reds handpicked by co-owner Tony Foreman while nibbling on select bits of chef Julian Marucci’s antipasti. The restaurant hosts regular tastings such as this on Monday evenings for $49 per person. Foreman has partnered with chef Cindy Wolf in Cinghiale and a handful of other restaurants, including Pazo, a more casual venue also devoted to Mediterranean cuisine, where I made a meal of a large assortment of tapas from goat cheese dip to empanadas salsa verde.
Sophistication and elegance often blossom in unusual settings; Gertrude’s, located on the ground floor of the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a prime example. Owned by TV cooking-show host and cookbook author John Shields (Coastal Cooking), the restaurant, named for Shields’ grandmother, specializes in “Chesapeake cuisine”: fried oysters, rockfish, corn fritters, pan-fried chicken, Eastern shore produce and, yes, crab cakes prepared three different ways. Sunday brunch is particularly popular here—try any one of the fabulous seafood variations on eggs Benedict, or the crabmeat omelette, and then take a tour of the museum’s exhibit of the moment.
Obviously, humans do not live by fine dining alone. On the storied “Avenue” of Hampden, a neighborhood known for its unique boutiques and eateries, the gi-normous pink flamingo marks Cafe Hon, home of June’s annual Honfest, a celebration of all things Baltimore (John Waters, native to these parts, calls lunch at Hon one of the top five things to do cityside). I was particularly partial to the homemade bread pudding and homemade hot fudge. Hampden is also home to the Mexican eatery Holy Frijoles!, at differing times named “Best Cheap Restaurant” (tacos are $1.95 each) and “Best Drink Using a Salad Item” (the Fresh Muddled Cucumber Margarita) by Baltimore’s CityPaper.
Then there’s Rocket to Venus, serving culinary combos as otherworldly as its name: buttermilk batter-fried pickles, brussels sprouts roasted in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, Thai-spiced mussels and po’boys composed of prosciutto and oysters with Pernod dressing on a ciabatta. But you know what? When it comes to comfort food, give me a gut-busting-big breakfast at the Formica-and-checked-cloth-covered tables of Jimmy’s Restaurant—just an appetite-sparking stroll from my accommodations at the Admiral Fell Inn, a homey-yet-sleek European-style hostelry dating to the 18th century—a diner that serves a short stack and homemade scrapple that are little touches of heaven.