You know how you get into ruts with restaurants? You stick close to home, stay with safe bets on dishes or go to the same places over and over. I sometimes joke that I never leave Hampden, but…I’m really lucky. Since moving to my ‘hood 13 years ago, it has become better and better, especially where food is concerned. We have some pretty great places like The Food MarketCorner BYOBArtifact CoffeeBirroteca and more. But everyone has to branch out and I’ve been doing lots of that lately.

Last month I did a piece on spring cocktails around town and for it, I went out for drinks six nights in a row. I honestly was exhausted. But really glad I did it. I met some great people and had incredibly creative cocktails. On my tour, I visited B&O American Brasserie in the Hotel Monaco (Baltimore & Charles).  It’s in a ‘hood I don’t visit often since I don’t live or work downtown, which is part of the reason I hadn’t been there in about two years. I’d forgotten how gorgeous the 1906 Beaux Arts building is – it’s the former headquarters for the B&O Railroad. After valeting your car, make sure you walk through the hotel’s lobby to take it all in.

B&O Brasserie

Here are the cocktails my friend and I had that first night – they were fantastic.

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Camden Crusta – Leblon cachaca, velvet falernum,
pineapple syrup, lime juice, Angostura bitters

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Dixfield Sour – Pisco Porton, blueberry-thyme cordial,
lemon juice, egg white

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Coppertop: Bluecoat gin, yellow chartreuse, ginger syrup, lemon,
juice, peppercorns

Cocktails are not to be missed here. Lead bartender Brendan Dorr and his staff have put together an impressive mix of award-winning creations. I decided to go with the B&O Manhattan. That was my dad’s drink. He didn’t drink too many of them, but he did love ‘em. When I drink Manhattans, I toast to him. Here’s how they make one at B&O: Angel’s Envy bourbon, port, Angostura bitters and maple syrup. Using port as the sweetener vs. vermouth is a nice idea – and it worked well. Not too sweet. It also comes with a brandied Morello cherry. Thanks, Anna, for the deliciousness.

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My friend had the Queen Bee – which is one of B&O’s most loved cocktails. It’s made with Belvedere, Yuzu, St. Germain and honey syrup. Sweet, but not too much so. I’d definitely get that one next time. (There is definitely going to be a next time.)

For the first tastes, Chef Brad Willits (more on him later…) brought us some chilled strawberry soup – sort of a sweeter spring gazpacho. Lovely and refreshing. Also, we got the smoked shrimp agnolotti and I was pretty much smitten – pasta filled with smoked shrimp with sea urchin butter, carrot cardamom puree and sea beans. Lick the plate good. Then we also shared the grilled wild boar terrine with pickled okra, parsley grapefruit salad and mustard dressing. That was really interesting (in a good way) and the flavors went together perfectly. How do they come up with these flavor combinations?

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For my entree, I went with the smoked pork shoulder, served with plums, turnips, market beans and bacon jam. Bacon jam, bacon jam, bacon jam. Yum. Again, the flavors went so well together. Sweet, smoky, earthy…all good. I couldn’t finish it, sadly, because I wanted to save room for dessert. My friend went with the thyme-basted scallops. They are were perfectly cooked and came with bacon sausage, leeks, hen of the woods mushrooms and grain mustard sauce. I was kind of jealous of her plate…but she is my friend, so she shared. And I shared my pork shoulder, too. We really had the best of both worlds. Happy.

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For dessert, we got what sounded good but ended up being quite amazing. Corn creme brûlée. They change the creme brûlée daily…and that makes me want to see what else they’d do with it. I’m sort of picky about creme brûlée (and I’m not a huge dessert person to begin with) so for me to love something sweet has to be special. This was special. The next time I go, I hope I’m lucky enough to have the corn creme brûlée again. But then, I’m sure Chef Willits and his crew will come up with something else that’s an unexpected treat.

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So, more about Chef Willits. Look at this guy!

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He’s from South Florida – Vero Beach, to be exact. He grew up around lots of great food – his grandfather was a great cook and used to make fresh pasta, so his Italian food roots are important. Also, growing up near the ocean, seafood is a big deal to him. He fished as a kid, so he learned early about working with fresh fish, and it shows. The menu at B&O has many seafood options (and that all-important Maryland crabcake – you gotta) and also has nice selection of meat and vegetarian options.. It’s very balanced, creative and approachable. Chef Willits has worked in some serious business kitchens including Crush and Canlis in Seattle and FIG and McCrady’s in Charleston to name a few. And now we have him in B’more. How lucky are we? And…he’s a nice guy.

One of my favorite parts of visiting great restaurants is having the chance to talk with these  talented and hardworking chefs. To hear about their experiences –  what inspires and motivates them – is such a treat.

So, my advice to you is to get OUT of your routine and try something new. And if you get the chance to go to B&O Brasserie, have that Manhattan.