Charm City Cook: A Visit to The Newly Re-Opened Chesapeake Restaurant
The Chesapeake. You went there a million years ago. Or maybe it was your dad (like mine). Or maybe your grandparents used to talk about it. Or you just walked or drove by it for the last 20-plus years wondering what it used to be. Well, back in the day, it was quite the place to go. Think business lunches and anniversary dinners – which included things like steaks, seafood and old school cocktails. It opened in 1933 and sadly, closed in 1986.
Baltimore is a city that values its history, but also embraces new ideas, too: we’re of a mixed bag. The juxtaposition of old and new is quite evident at the Chesapeake. First, they kept the name. Some may say that’s the easy way out…or boring. I disagree. It’s so smart. When I visited for the opening this week, people were all around me saying to the managers, servers and bartenders, “My parents used to come here.” “My boss said he used to take clients here back in the day.” And on and on. And on. So, retaining the name, retains the nostalgia. And, boy, Baltimoreans are nostalgic. They’re even having Throwback Thursdays for those who want to experience the food and cocktails of the original menu. Smart, I’m telling you.
So, the vibe. Vibe is important, no? This place is relaxed, not trying too hard, but definitely putting a little effort in. Yes, they have industrial-esque hanging lights and Edison light bulbs mixed with a gorgeous, modern marble bar and simple bar stools…it all works. And as for that minimal chic decor, it’s not quite ‘done’ yet. Stay tuned for some finishing touches. From the Woodberry-esque uniforms (hello, checked shirts and dark, somewhat skinny jeans…) to the cocktail menu to the minimal chic decor, this place says now. But not in a “we are SO COOL” kind of way. The servers are friendly, helpful and present when needed. As a former waitress, I always struggled with the balance of checking in vs. leaving alone. You have to sort of size up your guests and figure out what they want. That’s not always easy. Our bartender got it just right. I also will point out that the bar stools are padded and pretty comfy. Again, smart. If you keep sitting, you keep eating and drinking! And, I do love having dinner at the bar. Big fan. AND, gals…they have hooks under the bar for your bag. SCORE! One more thing that would be smart (a’la The Food Market in Hampden) would be free valet parking. I had no trouble finding parking, but not everyone is interested in street parking and some won’t want to pay for the lot in the back. But providing valet is a whole other biz and I don’t really blame them for not going there.
The cocktail menu is tight. I like that…too many choices overwhelm me. On my first visit, I tried two cocktails – the Silent in the Morning (Panamanian white rum, lemon, local honey, orange, egg white) and the Mikey’s Rule (Maryland rye, Peychaud’s bitters, maple syrup, absinthe). I liked the latter much more. I thought the egg white of the former would have been more frothy, but maybe they are still working on their game. It’s early. My friend had the Tom Selleck – bitter orange liquor, sweet vermouth, Philadelphia gin and ginger – and it was excellent. I’d definitely recommend that one. One side note: My water glass was continuously filled as I sat and enjoyed our snacks. Little things like that…things that should (but often do not) happen, I notice and appreciate. Thank you, Del.
Silent in the Morning
As for food, we didn’t have dinner, but we did have some good snacks at the bar. I asked Nancy, a Chesapeake server – formerly of Corner BYOB – what we should try. She suggested several delicious sounding options and we started with the mussels (in a Pernod-Parmesan “tea” or broth.) There was not too much anise flavor…I liked it. I kind of wished the bread was soft instead of served as a crostini, as it would have been more fun to sop up the broth that way. But…other than that, loved the mussels and would definitely order them again. We also got the “Fries with Eyes” – a.k.a. fried smelts (little fish, don’t be scared). I can say this with certainly – they were perfect. Crisp outside, perfectly cooked inside and not too fishy tasting. Never had smelts? Try ‘em. The housemade tartar sauce made me pretty happy, too. Next time, I’m going for the beets (prepared five ways, with housemade ricotta) and the charcuterie and cheese plates. I love snacking vs dinner entrees…but if I were to try an entree next time, I’d go back on a Monday night for the fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. I’m told that Chef Miller’s fried chicken has won awards and is not to be missed. I also liked the sound of the Knuckle Sandwich – lobster and crab ‘knuckles,” tomato, tarragon bayonnaise served with hand-cut fries. Yes, please. And I also love a good New York strip steak. Maybe I’ll just eat my way through the menu once a week – it’s only about two minutes from my house! Oh, and for dessert, Chesapeake’s coconut snowball – triple coconut cake, dark chocolate ganache, cocoa sorbet and toasted coconut. I have to try that.
Each night there is a special: Monday, fried chicken; Tuesday, $1 oysters and $2 Natty Bohs; Wednesday, fish & chips; Thursday, throwback cocktails and menu items from the old Chesapeake menu and Friday & Saturday, Prime Rib for two. I’m in for Throwback Thursday…and well, the other nights sound mighty fine, too. (Hey, I like all food groups…)
There is a definite seafood presence (mussels, oysters, clams, ceviche, shrimp, lobster….) as Chef Jordan Miller is a seafood guy and is quite particular about it. In fact, the night we were there, he took the clams off the menu because he was not happy with the quality of what was delivered. Here’s a little bit about Chef Miller’s background. He was raised along the oceans and bays of Long Beach Island, New Jersey and realized from a very early age that cooking was in his blood. He spent summers cooking with his grandfather and then later surfing, clamming, crabbing and fishing with his family, which evolved into finding how many ways one can prepare the catch of the day. In his teen years he participated in barbecue competitions with his dad and cooked for local restaurants at the Jersey Shore. Later in college, he cooked full-time and upon graduation cooked professionally in Philadelphia, New Jersey and California. Most recently, he was with the Plumpjack Hospitality group and winery in Olympic Valley, California. Very, very talented guy.
Since I’d just written about oysters, I decided to do a sampling of the three they were offering that day. Also, I have to say…the whole “month with an R in it” thing…it’s a very outdated rule. Read my post on Charm City Cook about it and don’t skip raw oysters in the summer if you love them!
They also have a private dining room which can be rented for events – I need to peek in on that the next time I visit. And shortly, they will serving coffee and breakfast items in the mornings in the front entrance area of the restaurant. Guests will be able to take their purchase to go or sit and enjoy while they wait for their train or if they just want to have a moment of quiet to start their day. I know I will take advantage of that when I travel to NYC and DC on business.
As a city resident, I’m so glad the new owners embraced this Baltimore institution and brought it back around. Aren’t you? So often old things are tossed aside for something brand new, and in neighborhoods like Station North (still growing, improving), it’s so important. Architecture, history, memories – they’re all important. If this project succeeds, everyone wins. And, we must give thanks to people who decided to invest in the block before the renaissance of the Chesapeake – like the Charles Theatre, Sofi’s Crepes,Tapas Teatro to name a few – we can all benefit. I love my hometown and I’m so glad to have not just another place to eat and drink, but another business drawing people into the city. #golocal is not just a hashtag!
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