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Azumi has taken over the space adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel formerly occupied by Pabu. While its predecessor was a casual izakaya—the Japanese equivalent of a pub—the new concept, from the Atlas Restaurant Group (owners of nearby Ouzo Bay), is full service, multi-course and upscale. Emphasis on upscale. Chef Eiji Takase’s menu includes several cuts of wagyu beef along with sushi and signature appetizers. In addition to its sake program, the bar will reflect Japan’s recent obsession with fine whiskey.
Chef. Takase, who moved to Fells Point in October, was part of the creative team behind SushiSamba, the Japanese-Brazilian concept (with locations in Manhattan’s West Village, Miami and London) and opened Shibuya in Las Vegas. He was also behind Chicago’s Japonais and Momoya in New York. Look for such cold dishes as blue fin Toro tartare with caviar, wasabi foam and wakamono, and jalapeno yellowtail hamachi with garlic soy, achiote oil and yuzu. Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms in Idaho will be seared on hot stone, and of course there will be sushi. “Rice is very important,” says Takase. “It’s connected to Shinto [the ancient Japanese religion], a symbol of life.”
Drinks. Tiffany Soto, who holds the rarified title of Sake Kikizake-shi (or Master Sake Teacher), consulted with the restaurant—as well as providing training to staff. The bar also will feature high-end Japanese whiskey (don’t forget, Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask recently ruffled Scotch feathers in the World Whiskey Bible). Taps will proffer both Japanese and local suds. “That’s the great thing about our team,” says Alex Smith, Atlas co-owner (with George Aligeorgas). “Our shtick is we’re local guys, so we’ll have Resurrection and Duckpin along with Sapporo.”
Décor. Designer Patrick Sutton has created a streamlined look with a range of textures and surfaces, both natural and synthetic. Entry to Azumi is through a clear glass vestibule to keep out the sharp winter wind—and summer heat. What was formerly a wall behind the bar is now a sweep of windows facing the water and the public walkway that rims Harbor East (with plans to create an outdoor space with soft seating, planters and lanterns). Banquettes are upholstered in shimmery faux eelskin and lit by custom metal light fixtures shaped like bishop’s hats. The bar has been relocated to the rear, and features a steel backdrop with a Japanese proverb (loose translation: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”) laser cut and backlit through red acrylic.
Lounge. A small lounge area off to one side offers bottle service in the shadow of a DJ (who will spin easy listening until 11 p.m., when, owners hope, a nightlife vibe will kick in). The wall is clad in black acoustic foam cut in a geometric pattern, and barstools are the very best part; each a hollow cylinder packed with vertical dowels. Upon landing, your backside is in for a squishy treat. The dowels sit atop Tempur-pedic type foam to create a shape-conforming cushion. “I don’t know where Patrick finds these things,” Smith muses.
Final Verdict. Azumi, Japanese fine dining from a conscientious chef with an international reputation, is the first of its kind in the region. Bring your gold card.
Azumi 725 Aliceanna St.
Want Fries with That?
When James Clark was a college student in Ottowa, he and his friends would gorge on poutine—fries slathered in gravy and sprinkled with white cheese curds. “That’s what you’d do after a night out,” says Clark. The one-time hangover prophylactic has become mainstream in his home country. “You see guys in suits in Toronto having it for lunch,” he says. His eponymous Clark Burger, which opened in a small space adjacent to the Senator Theatre in December, serves the fries gussied up with options like pulled pork, bacon and Montreal smoked meat, in addition to burgers with all manner of toppings. Wash it all down with local brews on tap or a classic Canadian-inspired cocktail. One of Clark’s favorites is the Bloody Caesar, a lighter rendition of a bloody mary, made with Clamato. “I think the first person who tried it said, ‘Bloody Caesar!’ because it tasted so good,” he theorizes. He also predicts the return of the Boilermaker (for those who don’t watch crime dramas, that’s a beer and a shot of whiskey). 5906 York Road, 410-323-0000, clark-burger.com
Jim Glick, co-owner of the SoBo Market, an extension of nearby SoBo Café in Federal Hill, has a vision of the ideal customer. “It’s a neighborhood place. They’ll come in for a cocktail after work and then look around and see something for dinner.” That something may be on the simple menu of sandwiches on homemade bread, crudités and small plates—or in the grab-and-go case stocked with gourmet salads, roasted chicken, hummus and other spreads and staples like milk and eggs. Glick’s life and business partner Anna Leventis, bought the mothership café three years ago and has transformed it into a comfort food alternative to the raucous bar scene nearby—and a favorite of the neighborhood’s growing under-10 population. “We’ve had kids who ask to have their birthday parties here,” Leventis points out. Some of the café’s favorites, such as mac-n-cheese and spinach pie, are available at the market, as well as coffee drinks and pastries (including SoBo’s renowned biscuits) on weekend mornings. For those who want to linger, bar manager Paul Palombo (pictured right) is crafting such “post-prohibition” cocktails as the Bobby Burns (Scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine) and Corpse Reviver (gin, Cointreau and absinthe) from boutique spirits. 13 E. Randall St., 410-685-6605
Wake Up, Annapolis
Kyle Algaze, owner of Iron Rooster in Annapolis, has an operating principle that resonates with everyone: Breakfast for dinner. The menu moves seamlessly from eggs Benedict with smoked salmon to waffles with buttermilk fried chicken—a recipe of which Algaze is rightfully proud—to coffee-rubbed New York strip steak and “Cakes on Cakes” (crabcakes + cornmeal pancakes). The food at this homey spot, a stone’s throw from Market Slip (aka Ego Alley) is whimsical and comforting—and sure to incite food envy (you really want to know what the people at the next table are having). We salivated over a neighbor’s Oysters Roostafella with spinach and quail eggs, shrimp and grits, a risotto baked in its own cast-iron pan—and a dessert list that’s so over-the-top it sounds like a parody of modern food trends. Peanut butter glazed bacon candy bar or red velvet waffle ice cream sandwich rolled in dark shaved chocolate, anyone? 12 Market Space, Annapolis, 410-990-1600, ironroosterallday.com
The White Oak Tavern can’t yet afford to publicize on the strip mall marquis, so co-owner Clare Frey just tells people “it’s in the Enchanted Forest shopping center.” The Ellicott City restaurant that Frey owns with her brother Peter and bar manager Noel Johnson took over the space once owned by Jilly’s Sports Bar last January. Though the fairy tale playthings have been moved to a nearby farm, the shopping center once called home by the oversized shoe and three little pigs’ cottages remains well known to Howard County residents of a certain age. Thick and juicy burgers made with grass-fed beef from Wagon Wheel Ranch in Mount Airy served with caramelized onions on an Atwater’s brioche bun is emblematic of the restaurant itself. The busy spot with TVs and bottomless brunch cocktails that is, yes, located in a strip mall, has an old soul. The owners are committed to local sourcing and “scratch cooking” along with craft cocktails made with seasonal fruits. Walls are paneled with wood torn from old pallets and decorated with reproductions of vintage photos from the Miller Branch library’s archives. “We have some customers who recognize themselves,” Frey says. Those folks probably also played at the Enchanted Forest. The rest of us can revel in the authenticity of the place. 10030 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-680-8974, thewhiteoaktavern.com
Dave Thomas and his wife, Tonya, along with business partners Brandon Taylor and Yuriy Chernov, opened Herb & Soul in Parkville in 2012. The cozy, bustling restaurant specializes in what Thomas calls Southern fusion, comfort foods with a healthy twist. Think alligator etouffée, fry bread tacos with braised rabbit and anything kale. Herb & Soul Express, which opened in Hamilton in December, offers carryout and delivery of foods Thomas has become known for (both at the Parkville restaurant and his stand at the Sunday Farmers Market and Bazaar).
What are your food roots? My grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian, one generation out of slavery, from North Carolina. She had 13 acres in Howard County with apple trees, fig trees, pear trees, cherry trees. She had a garden; she butchered her own animals; she made root beer. I watched her make everything from scratch from her own fields. When I got into cooking, I wanted to do that.
Sounds like you were on top of a trend. People do look at it as a trend; that’s an unfortunate thing. If you look back to the 1950s, before industrial farming became dominant in the U.S., even if you went to the grocery store to buy food, they could point you to the farm where it came from.
Does your food have a message? I believe the Creator made everything to eat perfectly. As chefs, our job is to enhance what nature provides. I’ve done all the gastronomic stuff; I’ve worked with foams and know all the ways of making food look like something it’s not. I like simple food; simple flavors. I want people to eat healthy. But people want what they want. Some customers come in strictly for our fried chicken.
So you want people to eat close to the earth. Not only is that healthy, but you’re supporting the environment. I serve blue catfish because it’s invasive in Maryland waters. The indigenous white or channel catfish grow to only 10 to 15 pounds. Blue catfish is indigenous to Asia and was introduced in Maryland several years ago. The record caught was 120 pounds. It has no natural predators, so it’s eating all the things we love about the Chesapeake: baby oysters, baby rockfish, baby crabs. The only way to get rid of it is to cook it and eat it.
Will the Express menu be different? We’ll have artisan pizza, along with our Southern fusion, po’boys, Navajo fry bread tacos. We sell them now at Baltimore Farmers Market.
Is Herb & Soul Express a prototype? We’re looking to do five to 10 locations. Our idea is to change the concept of carryout and delivery food. No buffalo wings or frozen chicken tenders. We won’t be selling steak-umms. I’ll be buying fresh top round from Roseda, and hand-slicing it. —Martha Thomas