Once or twice per year East Baltimore’s Blue Hill Tavern offers a Groupon and while I don’t understand (seems they have a pretty strong business on their own), I’m not going to complain. The Brewer’s Hill gem offers new American cuisine worthy of critical praise and regular patronage. This being my 6th trip to the place, I find myself enjoying it more and more with each visit. I’ve yet to have a bad experience and that’s a good sign. One thing Baltimore lacks is consistency. I find myself splurging in DC more often than not because I can always count on places to deliver the goods. I can’t imagine Rasika or Blue Duck Tavern having an “off” night. But Charm City establishments tend to lose focus at times and while I believe this speaks more to a lack of experience than it does talent, this theory doesn’t make an underwhelming meal taste any better.
The fact that Blue Hill Tavern, a relatively new restaurant with an ever changing menu that might suggest a lack of focus, continues to impress time after time, tells me we’ve got a new staple in this city’s mid-priced creative American scene. Does it compete with Woodberry Kitchen for best mid-priced restaurant? No, but I’d eat here before I would most other places. Larger and more accommodating than Salt. A Helluva lot closer than Clementine. More consistent than Jack’s Bistro. Plus, Blue Hill Tavern may have one of the most talented pastry chefs in the region. But more on that later.
Recently we dined, four of us, at 8:00 — peak hours. Service was spot on. No complaints there. We began the night with a trio of plates which we dug into feverishly: a pork belly special, sweet chili mussels and a sausage, ricotta and parmesan flat bread. The mussels could have used some bread and while not my ideal choice of flavoring, the sweet chili worked, for the most part. I’m still partial to good old fashioned garlic and butter. The flat bread was a nice traditional brick oven pie. They offered a peach and prosciutto with goat cheese that sounded incredible but I couldn’t convince my ultra-trad table mates to give it a try. The pork belly special was just that: special. It needs to not be a special. They need to place this dish on the menu, for good. It was unquestionably the best pork belly experience I’ve had — and I’ve had a lot. Served with an apple mixture that nearly crossed the line between dinner and dessert, it was the perfect blend of sweet and savory. The fat to flesh ratio was perfect and the sauce didn’t soften the crispy outside one bit. I almost ordered a second one.
My friend’s veal chop looked incredible, although I didn’t get to try it. For me it was the three hour veal hindshank on the bone, braised, over saffron risotto and a white osso bucco sauce. At $24 this entree was an absolute steal. In retrospect, it could have used maybe a little crunch to even out the texture but that is a minor, minor complaint. I finished the entire dish and loved every bite. The meat slid right off the bone, as it should have. An ‘A’ for presentation and for flavor.
Our party wasn’t really in the mood for sharing so at this point I’ll have to skip to dessert. Dessert at Blue Hill Tavern is always a fun experience. In my opinion it’s way underrated. There are places where you skip the dessert, and there are places where you push through the pain. This is one of those places. They’ve always got a s’mores pie on the menu (in one form or another) and I’d highly recommend ordering it. In this case it was a round tart with a perfect graham crust, warm and fudgy whipped ganache inside and toasted marshmallow maringue outside. The filling reminded me of Woodberry Kitchen’s stellar “brownie pudding” and was a hit with the entire table. My wife ordered the menu staple “candy bar,” a combo of peanut butter shortbread, caramel, peanuts, marshmallow, chocolate ganache, and vanilla ice cream. Superb.
Blue Hill Tavern does a lot of things right. From the luxurious modern decor and great indoor and outdoor seating, impeccable service, convenient location and complimentary valet parking, to the well crafted menu mixing regular staples with seasonal flare executed well with care and precision. Now, if they could just improve their doggy bags.