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CHEF TALK: Bella Kline, Pen & Quill
After years of wrangling, a massive renovation and grand opening with the mayor and VIPs, the reincarnation of the iconic Chesapeake restaurant never hit its stride. The Karzai family, which owns b Bistro, The Helmand and neighboring Tapas Teatro, pulled out of the original project in 2011, but stepped back in. They reorganized the dining room, freshened the menu and hired chef Bella Kline, 24, who has worked at Chameleon in Baltimore and Chicago’s Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle. Pen & Quill opened in late summer.
What’s your cooking style?
My training has been very French. Things like choucroute garnie (sauerkraut and pork). But here we’re doing it with more of a Korean profile, with fish sauce and ginger, a marriage of sauerkraut and kimchi.
What was it like to work at a Michelin-starred restaurant?
The biggest thing was the expectation for your knife work. There’s only one way to do a brunoise, that’s a small dice. The Longman & Eagle chef, Jared Wentworth, is the kind of guy I love working for. It was like a well-manicured pirate ship. He’s crazy and wants everyone to have fun. But if something isn’t perfect, it’s going in the trashcan. You sit up a little straighter when he’s around.
Is that the kind of kitchen you run?
I definitely want to have the respect from my cooks that I had for him. I want them to be the best they can be.
How did you find out about the job?
My sister, Naomi Kline, is beverage director here. She was long-term bartender at Tapas before Helmand brought her here.
Why do you think the Chesapeake tanked?
All that I’ve heard is, whatever they were trying to do didn’t work. Maybe it was the design of the dining room: A huge wall divided in half. If a server can’t see your table, they don’t know what you need.
How do you make an amazing experience?
It’s not just about the food. We want to be the friendliest restaurant in town. The Karzais are very present. Normally in restaurants, something breaks and you say, “Where’s the duct tape?” Here, if something breaks they fix it. We had a really big flood the first weekend the restaurant opened. It was Quayum [Karzai] cleaning it up in the morning.
You ‘thru-hiked’ the Appalachian Trail with your fiancée, Meaghan. How did that work out?
It was our “Can we spend the rest of our lives together?” test. We passed.
What did you eat?
I started out pretty ambitious. Our packs were the heaviest. But when you’re walking 20 miles a day, you can easily eat everything. So we got more realistic. It became more of a freeze-dried life. Some hikers wasted away to nothing. I was the strongest I’ve ever been. You take your pack off, you feel you could do anything.
The newly opened Bookmakers Cocktail Club, atmospheric by Federal Hill standards, combines the intimacy of a dimly lit speak-easy with an imaginative kitchen and bar. The team is impressive, beginning with chef Chris Amendola, who came to Baltimore to take over the kitchen at Fleet Street Kitchen after working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York—ground zero for the farm-to-table furor. Ryan Sparks, who worked at Of Love and Regret, Jack’s Bistro and most recently Rye (by the same team behind Bookmakers), is a cocktail techie, compressing ghost peppers into bitters or extracting tincture of nasturtium for cocktails. The kitchen and bar share herbs and seasonal fruits to create eclectic menus that cry out for pairings. The sublime Old Fashioned, made with 1792 Bourbon and an artisanal ice cube emitting orange essence, is calling. 31 E. Cross St. 443-438-4039, bookmakersbaltimore.com
Chef Bryan Voltaggio says Baltimore’s Aggio, in the rapidly redecorated Tatu space—charcoal walls, mod lighting, painted brick—can be taken a lot less seriously than Volt in Frederick, where Table 21 proffers a 21-course prix-fixe symphony of flavor and texture. The new restaurant located in Power Plant Live! has a high-back banquette they call the “Godfather’s Table,” where you can order whatever you want. “I encourage grazing,” says the chef. “That’s what Italian eating should be.” While influenced by Voltaggio’s heritage and crafted by chef de cuisine Dan Izzo (who’s worked at New York’s Lupa), the food here is a far cry from Little Italy red sauce. Dishes are infused with Voltaggio’s passion for all things Chesapeake. The $95 chef’s tasting (yup, but you don’t have to order it) offers a squid ink pasta with Maryland blue crab. The regular menu boasts creative fare like Berkshire pork with pistachio butter and peach mostarda. “I grew up coming to the harbor and love this area,” says the Top Chef contender, who also plans to open a contemporary diner, Family Meal, in the old Houlihan’s spot by year’s end. 614 Water St. 410-528-0200, volt-aggio.com
AMBASSADOR DINING ROOM
The Ambassador Dining Room, tucked without fanfare into a classic apartment building in Tuscany-Canterbury, has long been revered as one of Baltimore’s most romantic restaurants. Owner-brothers Keir and Binda Singh recently opened a sibling restaurant, Ananda, in the suburbs. Set apart from the grand nouveau townhomes of Maple Lawn, the stand-alone building resembles a castle, with decorative turrets, and 8,000 square feet inside—twice the size of the Ambassador.
Maple Lawn is a planned community in the farmlands of Howard County, close to I-95. The county’s percentage of residents of Indian descent is higher than that of Maryland overall, and the median household income in these parts is more than $100K per annum. Seems like the perfect spot for a chic Indian restaurant with plenty of elbow room for special events. Plus, there’s a parking lot.
Food. Ananda plays copycat to its sib, offering familiar Indian dishes. The kitchen is headed by Keir and Binda’s sister, Kinday Kaur, born in the northern Indian state of Punjab, a region known for its aromatic sauces—think chicken and lamb masala—and tandoori-grilled meats and kebabs, stuffed paratha bread and dal. There’s also a classic pan-fried Goan fish, served whole in a garlic curry.
Décor. The restaurant’s eight fireplaces create winter ambience. Slowly turning fans operated by pulleys overhead, rattan furniture and reclaimed wood walls create a Colonial vibe. Sumptuous textures abound, from velveteen tufted banquettes to fleur-de-lis wallpaper and silk Rajasthani pillows. The Maharaja Room can host up to 180 guests, and the Marigold Room is great for meetings. Even with its high-tech trappings, the room is stately, with leopard-print, highbacked chairs, palatial ceilings and stained-glass clerestory windows.
Service. On an early visit, we were happy to see familiar faces among the waitstaff. Dining room staff, dressed in black jackets and starched white shirts, are friendly while formal. Spot-on service is part of the Ambassador’s charm, and Ananda maintains the tradition.
Cocktails. The Polo Bar offers happy hour daily from 4 to 6 p.m. with $5 cocktails (a rum and fruit Malabar punch, gin & tonic, Spicy Mango with Sriracha vodka) and small plates (lamb kofta, a Kerala cake made with crabmeat, masala fries).
Final Verdict. Did we mention that Ananda means ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit?
Ananda. 7421 Maple Lawn Blvd. 301-725-4800, anandarestaurant.net
TRY IT: mystery meal
Like an apparition, Dinner Lab mysteriously alights in a place unknown until it’s nearly too late. Those in the know gather for a coveted meal; they eat, drink and post seductive photos of composed plates before departing, to await word of the next secret meet-up. Unlike the parties all your friends on Instagram seem to attend, you can ensure an invitation to these culinary conclaves by joining the club. Dinner Lab Baltimore offers pop-up dinners to its members—who pay a $125 annual fee for advance intel. The subscription buys you access. Dinner details are posted early in the week for member sign-up, with an average event cost (including a multi-course meal and drink pairings) of $60. The concept started in New Orleans in 2012 with a series of wildly popular dinners created by up-and-coming chefs—and now has expanded to 20 U.S. cities. In September, chef Kwame Onwuachi, a Dinner Lab regular from New York, took over Hampden’s old Ideal Theatre to serve up whimsical variations on such familiar dishes as steak and eggs (with jerk beef cheeks and quail eggs) and cornbread pudding. The cherry on top: members have access to events in other cities, so you don’t have to worry about where to eat on your next trip to Austin. dinnerlab.com —Martha Thomas
Nalley Fresh co-owner Chef Carlo
“Release Your Inner Chef” is the motto for create-your-own salad, wrap and bowl joint Nalley Fresh, a fun option for folks who want to go all out with their own, healthy (or not-so-healthy) creations. Similar to the point-and-pick style of Chipotle—but with a wider variety of fresh, made-in-house ingredients—the local chain, which launched in 2011, has become a fan favorite in Hunt Valley, Towson and downtown Baltimore, with new locations in Canton and Timonium set to open in late fall. Founder Greg Nalley prides himself on the restaurant’s international food profile—and the way his fans interact with the brand. “This concept is really hot. Customers take ownership of their concoction and are really proud of what they make,” he says. While the menu changes daily, mainstays include proteins like buffalo chicken, falafel and grilled salmon, which can be mixed with various leafy greens, fruits, cheeses, veggies and dressings, for one-of-a-kind salads, wraps and unique bowls such as brown rice and sweet potato. nalleyfresh.com —Ian Zelaya