I can’t say that I was surprised that Woodberry Kitchen’s workshop at StarChefs was as wonderful as it was. I stopped there for dinner on my way home from visiting my son at the University of Virginia in September and left satisfied from dinner and amazed at their program. I’ve been involved with Slow Food since just after the new Millenium and I am unaware of a more ambitious restaurant program demonstrating the “good, clean and fair” motto of Slow Food than Spike and Amy Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen. There are certainly restaurants that do as much in-house as Woodberry Kitchen and restaurants that support their local farmers and fishermen as much as Woodberry Kitchen and restaurants that highlight the food of a specific region as much as Woodberry Kitchen, and there are restaurants with food as good as Woodberry Kitchen’s, but I’m not aware of any with the possible exception of Sean Brock’s McCrady’s and Husk that do all of that as well as they do with the volume that they do. Woodberry Kitchen is a high volume restaurant. What makes Woodberry Kitchen stand out is that even though it is a high volume restaurant, it does not suffer in quality or take short cuts in how it approaches food. Woodberry kitchen may be high volume, but it does so with a conscience and a value system that results in really, really good food.
The basic concept of Woodberry Kitchen is to take top notch local product from a network of farms and fishermen and do as much with it as they can, letting essentially nothing go to waste. The recipes are not complex nor is the food plated to resemble that from the kitchen of a Michelin three starred restaurant. With a wood-fired oven harnessed as the main cooking engine,the results tend to comforting, full flavored dishes that satisfy and indulge without pretense. It is simply as good a wholesome a meal as one is likely to find in the United States. It is the very definition of “good, clean and fair.”
Located away from the city center of Baltimore, I was beginning to question the accuracy of my GPS as it told me I was approaching the restaurant, but then I turned a corner and the distinctly residential area turned into an upscale refurbished factory destination – a model of urban renewal and a chic recycling of a previously dormant area. The restaurant, fronted by a busy valet parking service, is large, incorporating a number of distinct spaces, including an exterior patio for weather appropriate al fresco dining and several interior dining rooms including the multi-leveled main dining room with an open kitchen with its wood-fired oven centerpiece. The space is lively and engaging, totally consistent with the ethos and vibe of the restaurant. The main dining room, though boisterous and packed, somehow still managed to remain civilized with co-diners able to maintain conversations and relax over their bountiful plates. Normally, I don’t resonate with loud, crowded restaurants, but at Woodberry Kitchen, though it was busy and active, it all somehow remained contained. Here was a vibe that I could appreciate and enjoy and whose energy I could even feed off of.Upon being seated at a first floor table by the front window with a view of the oven directly in front of me, I opted to start with a cocktail, my only alcoholic beverage of the evening as I would be getting back on the road after dinner, even if only for a relatively short haul as I would be staying with friends that night. I had heard much of barkeep Corey Polyokas and his cocktail program and I was determined to at least sample one of his creations. I chose a “Whiskey Smash” with “smooth Kentucky bourbon with lemon, rosemary, old-fashioned bitters and sparkling water.” This was a nicely balanced cocktail with the sparkling water giving it a lightness abetted by the lemon. The rosemary, with enough to provide a sense of the herb without an overpowering presence, added a welcome savory element with everything brought together by the bourbon. This was a winner! I gave the kitchen free reign to send out a bunch of different dishes to taste as many different things as I could,. Once they started coming, they came fast and furiously. My first bite was of the aptly named “yummy peppers.” These were roasted in the wood-fired oven. The name says it all. These were sweet, smoky, juicy and perfect. The names used at Woodberry Kitchen are accurate and descriptive. The “Sizzling” shrimp, like the “Yummy” peppers were exactly as described. The head-on Carolina shrimp had a wonderful, roasted flavor with a flavorful peanut sauce accompaniment adding another dimension. I love head-on shrimp when they are fresh enough that the heads add rather than subtract. These certainly added with the roasted heads supplying great savory juices, once they cooled off enough to allow me to hold them to suck from. This dish offered the iconic pleasure represented by other great shrimp dishes like the Spanish “gambas al ajillo” or the redundantly named Italian-American classic “shrimp scampi” when made with shrimp of as good quality as these meaty morsels. Bluefish potato fritters were soft, tasty and not in the least bit “fishy.” packed with a lemony punch, these, of course, were fried and the first bites I had that did not see the inside of the wood-fired oven. A tomato salad with four different kinds of tomato, shaved Romano, baby arugula and house made croutons was a dish of exuberance more than finesse, but it was plenty exuberant. The tomatoes reflected the peak of the season, packed with flavor. Nothing fancy, but this was the essence of late summer and a paean to quality ingredients. The more I ate, the more I wanted to eat, even as other dishes came to the table. Up to this point I had a good taste of the seasonal focus of Woodberry Kitchen with each dish highlighting fresh ingredients shining at the peak of their season, but I had yet to really experience one of the other cardinal trademarks of the restaurant – their emphasis on preservation.With a tray holding a variety of their house-made charcuterie product, I dove in in a big way. Pickles, watermelon butter, air-dried beef, pork neck, jowl bacon, bologna, rabbit pate, head cheese and lard comprised the “Butcher’s Board.” Each product was made with skill and quality ingredients -good stuff! Deviled eggs, a pot luck favorite, are rarely as good as the ones that were brought to my table. I definitely have a soft spot for these and the ones served to me didn’t miss the mark. Woodberry Kitchen’s are the big easy chair of deviled eggs – smooth and creamy they were nicely spiced and accentuated by flecks of bacon. Any place else these are called pizzas, but at Woodberry Kitchen, they call them “flatbreads.” Regardless of what they are called they are well made and delicious. The combinations available at Woodberry on any given day vary depending upon what is available and seasonal. This original combination was tasty and spicy, though by now, I was starting to get quite full. Other choices on the day I was there included pork shoulder, corn and jalapeño cream buttercup and Tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, peppers & Romano. At $14 or $15 each these make a very good and economical meal in and of themselves.
With my appetite rapidly sating, there was still one more savory dish that I was told I should try, so I accepted an abbreviated portion of the Scallop main course. I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be one of the most perfectly seared and most delicious scallops I’ve ever eaten. Big, thick and so sweet, it was an über-scallop. Served on top of yellow beans, roasted cherry tomatos and eggplant in a slightly spicy tomato based sauce, it would have been just as good with whatever it was served with. That is not to take anything away from its tasty accompaniment, but the scallop itself was just that good. Unfortunately, by this time, the beautiful natural light behind me had disappeared and the remaining light was too low for me to get acceptable photos.
Still a kid at stomach, despite being full, not having or at least trying dessert isn’t an option for me, especially when prepared by someone like Woodberry Kitchen’s Isaiah Billington, who has developed a reputation for creating delicious, wholesome desserts from within the Slow Food filled philosophy of the Gjerdes’ restaurant. I typically don’t drink coffee anymore, though I love it. Considering I had a post-prandial drive ahead of me though, I opted for a brew to go with my dessert(s). The coffee came out in a Boden press with a timer. It was dark roast, smooth and wonderfully rich. When I do have coffee, I don’t like to waste the rare opportunity on an inferior cup. This was superior and I savored it. Watermelon sorbet, fresh baked shortbread, goat cheese cheesecake with Canary melon sorbet, a chocolate pudding and a sundae with malt ice cream with chocolate sauce, marshmallow and candied peanuts threatened individually and together to put me into a sugar coma. It’s a good thing I had the coffee. Billington’s reputation was not unearned, as each of these would have made a delightful end of a meal on its own. Together they were simply wonderful excess even as I only had a bite (or two) of each.
Following dinner, I and the opportunity to visit the kitchen and pastry Chef Isaiah Billington., who also happens to be in charge of their impressive food preservation program. At the time, they were knee deep in preserving tomatoes and peppers and making their signature hot sauce from fish peppers. Woodberry Kitchen started out with a lot of suppliers of finished product, but they have whittled that list down to a minimum by making everything they can in house. They do it, very, very well and deserve to be a model for chefs and restaurants who want make food that is “good, clean and fair.” This is a restaurant that manages to do things the right way and still be both a critical and financial success. They use traditional technique and a Modernist mindset to question how everything is done and to try to do it better and more efficiently. The result is a wonder of organization and a cornucopia of wonderful cooking focused on using topnotch regional product throughout the year. Woodberry Kitchen is not a restaurant of nuance. It is bold, brash and exuberant. It is a wonder of the Chesapeake region and beyond.