Artful Eats

Chef Melanie Molinaro
Chef Melanie Molinaro

Robbin Haas has a reputation for rehabilitating bedeviled locations. With Birroteca in Woodberry and Mt. Washington’s Nickel Tap House, he concocted the perfect elixir of food and atmosphere in formerly troubled spaces. Now Haas brings veg-centric Encantada to the space above the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM) that was most recently Mr. Rain’s Fun House.

Chef. When Haas hired Melanie Molinaro as pastry chef for Birroteca in 2012, she was “really scared.” She’d worked in hotel and corporate restaurants, but never for an independent. “I told myself it was time to put my big girl pants on,” says the chef, who has since opened Nickel Tap House and Birroteca in Bel Air. As a fledgling vegetarian, she recently experimented with vegan cheese made with cashews and coconut. “It helped me get into what we’re doing at Encantada—finding a good relationship with vegetables.”

Food and Drink. Molinaro’s menu is a mix of comfort foods—like a dish that mimics Nashville hot chicken (fried chicken tossed in a spicy sauce) done with sunchokes and a Wagyu bavette. The lean, sirloin-type cut is served with extra-elaborate beets. “I don’t want people to ignore the meat, but I want them to be like, ‘the beets were awesome,’” says the chef. Look for seafood dishes like skate with smoked almond, peas and artichoke. The cocktail list, which Molinaro has been working on with bar manager Christian Stoddart, features fruits and vegetables—try the spiked kale lemonade.

Décor. Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder and director, took charge of redecorating. Hoffberger says that Haas was the first restaurateur to say, “I want this to look like part of the museum.” Hoffberger commissioned David Hess, who made the twisted cable “Bird’s Nest” outside of the museum, to design tables—ropy metal bases topped with live edge slabs from a tree felled on the artist’s property. She chose floral and Ikat-style prints from Joann Fabrics and ordered embroidered Uzbeki Suzani textiles from eBay to upholster chairs and banquettes, including a church pew purchased at Second Chance salvage.

Venue. Chef Peter Zimmer—a pioneer in the sustainable eating movement—opened the Joy America Café in 1995. Since then, AVAM’s restaurant has had a series of esteemed owners—including Spike and Charlie Gjerde. As Hoffberger anticipates the museum’s 20th anniversary, celebrated with a gala on November 21, she points out another source of pride: The glittering outdoor mosaic, by the Shining Walls, Shining Youth project, “the largest program in Maryland for incarcerated kids. Once they reach 30 hours, they get lifetime membership to the museum.”

Final Verdict. With its creative vision Encantada looks like a keeper for AVAM.

800 Key Highway

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