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With the wildly popular Birroteca barely a year old, Robbin Haas opened the buzzy Nickel Taphouse in Mount Washington last November. Two restaurants booming in formerly troubled spots may anoint Haas with a reputation for a Midas touch. “The truth is,” says Haas, who has owned and operated restaurants from Florida golf resorts to Guatemala to the Eastern Shore, “I build restaurants that I want to go to.” Nickel, inspired by gin mills in Haas’ hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., features Beef on Weck—thin-sliced steak on a plump caraway-studded Kummelweck roll. But there are no chicken wings to be had. “I don’t want to be that place,” says Haas. “No wings, no nachos. We’re not a bar food restaurant.”
Décor. Haas commissioned local artist Robert Merrill to design Parisian-inspired decals for the windows, with such inviting messages as “Ladies Welcome,” “Open Sundays” and “Fresh Mussels.” The 140-year-old front door with a beveled glass window, and wood for the bar came from salvage outlets, and Haas purchased the beadboard booths that line one wall from a defunct Hooters—painting over the orange with a cool slate and adding brown Naugahyde cushions. An iron rack suspended above the bar holds 120 flickering votive candles, and the deer antler chandelier coordinates nicely with the bison horn door handles—and toilet paper holder in the bathroom.
Drinks. Nickel has 32 (mostly mid-Atlantic) craft beers on tap, with the brews constantly changing. “We buy one keg at a time, and when one pops we put another one in,” says Haas. There’s also a 50-bottle wine list with only a handful over $40, and 18 wines by the glass. Bar manager Danny Onaga designs cocktails with small batch spirits and housemade fixings. “You won’t find maraschino cherries behind the bar,” says Haas. Nor will you find Seagram’s or Absolut, for that matter, though there is Buffalo Trace Bourbon infused with bacon fat, used in one of Nickel’s special Boozy Shakes along with candied bacon, vanilla ice cream from Prigel Family Creamery and ground walnuts.
Food. Along with its signature Beef on Weck, Nickel offers healthy salads, plates (for two) of whole bronzini, chicken and dumplings and brisket with mashed potatoes. There’s also a sinfully juicy Roseda burger—“everyone who uses that beef has an amazing burger,” Haas demurs—along with a nightly selection of oysters (on a recent Saturday night, the place shucked more than 600) and, yes, mussels.
Service. Haas’ restaurant philosophy is more about the Golden Rule than a Midas touch. “To me, service is key in a restaurant,” he says. “In our job description I list the tools you need each day: an apron, five pens, a wine opener and a smile. It’s called the hospitality business because you’re supposed to be hospitable. You’re supposed to make people happy.”
Location, Location, Location. The 2,000-square-foot space has seen at least four tenants in nearly the same number of years. But if Haas can keep up the vibe—as he seems to be doing with Birroteca—there’s no reason to think Nickel won’t be a keeper. As for the other tavern around the corner? “The more the merrier,” he says.
Final Verdict. For some, Nickel might be a bit out of the way, but it’s worth remembering when you’re in the mood for filling victuals and affordable drinks. Not to mention smiling staff and Boozy Shakes.
It may have similarities to Liquid Assets in Ocean City, Md., but Liquid Lib’s, the newest member of the Liberatore’s clan, has an urban flair and seems to be attracting folks from inside and outside the Beltway. Tucked behind the mothership in an office building on Deereco Road in Lutherville, the wine shop with benefits lends itself to suburban meetups and is worth the trek. General manager Nick Angelini, whose resume includes stints at Kali’s Court and Da Mimmo’s, has stocked the place with wines of varied price points, for takeaway or consumption on-site with a $10 corkage. (This minimal markup means, say, a Napa Cabernet from Silver Oak, a customer favorite, priced well over $200 on many wine lists, can be had for $135 here.) If you’re undecided, sample from about 60 wines available by the glass, or from the selection of wines in the Cruvinet, an automated wine dispenser operated by the swipe of a pre-purchased card. Liquid Lib’s also offers solids; deviled eggs with scallop crudo or crunches of bacon, mussels, meatballs and salads are served on small plates, most under $10. The wine you choose might influence where you drink it: there’s a glass bar, lit from beneath with colored lights for a quick quaff of pre-movie Chardonnay, high-top tables made from reclaimed barrels where you’ll want to share a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir with friends and comfy loveseats around a fireplace—perfect for a sparkly splurge. Go ahead, lib a little. 9515 Deereco Road, Lutherville, 410-561-3300, http://www.liberatores.com
Vivo Trattoria Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar
The folks who live in Hanover’s Arundel Mills seem to be a little bit happier since Vivo Trattoria Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar opened its doors in December. The Italian tavern at The Hotel at Arundel Preserve has a menu to please just about every palate, with comfort food versions of pasta, flatbreads and such traditional preparations as veal piccata and chicken parmigiana. There’s also a highly accessible wine list with plenty of options in the $30 to $50 range.
The interior is a fury of textures, with faux stone walls with lettered signs announcing trattoria, pizza and vino. Wood blinds compete with long draperies and there are at least four styles of light fixtures—as if multiple designers were at work independently. If something about the place says chain, that’s just where it’s headed.
Vivo is a prototype for additional projects, says George Korten, of the Long Island-based George Martin restaurant group, which also owns Grillfire across the lobby. Grillfire has locations in Merrick and Rockville Centre, Long Island, and the group also owns Strip Steak and GM Burger Bar. “We’d like to take Vivo someplace else if there’s a market for it,” Korten says. “Maryland seems underserved.” 7793-B Arundel Mills Blvd., Hanover,
The nuegados at Mi Comalito are straight from El Salvador: six patties of queso dura (hard white cheese) and yucca, deep fried and resting in a pool of sweet syrup made from boiled sugar cane, with a pleasantly burnt flavor reminiscent of low grade maple syrup. Late last year, owner/chef Wilson Gutierrez, a native of El Salvador, leased a tiny spot in Charles Village—an area he found devoid of Central American food—painted the walls bright yellow and red and started making recipes he had learned in his home country. Gutierrez also prepares food from Mexico and Honduras, fresh and inexpensive, accompanied by soft, chewy handmade corn tortillas. Rivaling anything we’ve tried in the Upper Fells/Patterson Park area known as Little Mexico, we enjoyed Plato Típico Salvadoreño, shrimp and chicken in a tomato-tinged cream sauce with thin slices of steak, rice and salad, and the Mariscada seafood soup bursting with lobster, shrimp and clams. BYOB. 2101 N. Charles St., 410-837-6033.
Brian Boston opened the Highland Inn with retirement on his mind. Not that the energetic chef, who has operated the Milton Inn for 16 years, plans to hang up his knives. Rather, he wanted a place to call his own. Boston put $4 million into purchasing the farm and renovating the 120-year-old farmhouse top to bottom. And he’s got big plans for the place. The four-acre property, he says, “is all usable space,” with a pond and patio, and he’s already booking up with weddings and other special events.While Boston will stick with what he does best—fine dining—the Highland Inn has a less formal approach than his previous endeavors (his first job as a chef was at the Brass Elephant). The low country menu features shrimp and grits and braised short ribs, along with craft beers and cocktails, and a 150-bottle wine list. Boston hired Mark Davis (formerly of Baltimore’s Ten Ten) as executive chef and will continue to run the kitchen up in Sparks himself. “I just renewed the lease,” he says. “I have another 25 years at the Milton Inn.” 12857 Highland Road, Highland, 443-276-3202, http://www.highlandinnrestaurant.com