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Another tiny restaurant—26 seats in all—opens in Hampden, and this one is a Fabergé egg. Clearly a driven man, Arômes chef/owner Steve Monnier puts together complex small plates with whatever the market offers on a given day, supplemented by exotic flourishes from a collection of tins above the stove: dried chamomile, bottarga he made himself from dried Maine sea urchins, curry powder, matcha tea.
Food. If you’re a fan of tasting menus, this is your place. On an early visit, options included cauliflower risotto with lemon balm jus and a crunchy scallop chicharrones, tender lamb with curry butter and sweet carrot ravioli, a crispy potato nest with a scoop of dulce ice cream sprinkled with bottarga and lemon ash—a midflight mix of savory, salty and sweet that could have been dessert. Dessert reversed the stunt with white chocolate ice cream surrounded by sweet parsnips and tonka beans—topped with a sheet of caramelized milk skin, sweet and crumbly. Fussy but not overdone. “This is minimal,” says Monnier of his six-plate format. “If I were only cooking for 10 people, I’d do more.”
Chef. Monnier, 38, grew up in France’s Champagne country of Reims and started cooking at 16. Stints in Cannes and Paris included working under highly regarded chefs like Philippe Braun and Michel del Burgo at Michelin-starred restaurants. He moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and cooked at French restaurants there (including L’Orangerie) before becoming a personal chef to the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Goldie Hawn and Charlie Sheen (“a great guy,” Monnier assures). His training with “modern” chefs in Paris taught him to move the vegetable to the center of the plate. “A lot of scientists are saying that by 2050, we won’t have meat and fish,” he points out. “Why not treat vegetables the same way you would lobster or foie gras?”
Location. Monnier and his wife, Florence, moved east to be closer to her family in Pennsylvania when their son (almost 2) was born. They looked at D.C., he says, but real estate was too expensive for a self-financed undertaking. He’s impressed with the Hampden camaraderie. After he had trouble with a contractor, he says, “Everyone stepped up. It was amazing.” Besides, he enthuses, “Baltimore has everything—great farming, the soil is so rich. You got the ocean, the forests.” He’s enlisted a forager to bring him mushrooms, fiddleheads and indigenous wildflowers and herbs.
Sourcing. The meat comes from Liberty Delight Farms, the dairy from Trickling Springs Creamery. Even the elegant space, like the menu, is locally sourced. Tables hewn by Josh Crown from reclaimed wood and a parquet floor pieced together from Brazilian cherry found from a supplier in Timonium. Hampden designer Jesse Harris’ minimalist lighting design has wires cascading like Maypole ribbons from the center of the ceiling to illuminate each table with a single Edison bulb.
Drinks. It’s a BYOB place with a $5 corkage fee per bottle. A selection of nonalcoholic drinks, created by front-of-the house manager, Gilles Mascarell, includes aromatic concoctions like lavender and Meyer lemon; ginger, turmeric and grapefruit; and hibiscus, mint and lime.
Final Verdict. An early surge in reservations and one look at the gorgeous plates on the restaurant’s website indicate that a seat at Arômes will be coveted. Make a reservation. Soon.
3520 Chestnut Ave., 410-235-0035
Artist/chef Irena Stein is set to open Alma, her Latin American tapas restaurant serving comfy street food and artisanal drinks at the Can Company, in April. Stein, 61, the striking visionary behind all-natural Café Azafrán at the Space Telescope Science Institute—one of Baltimore’s best kept secrets—and Alkimia, a second locally sourced lunch spot on the Hopkins Homewood campus, was born in Venezuela. The daughter of a Polish father and Venezuelan mother, Stein grew up in Caracas and Brussels, both of which influence her diverse recipes.
You morphed from social worker to jewelry designer to chef—how did that evolution occur? I found myself in a very fragile situation economically after Sept. 11, and everyone encouraged me to open a place where people could enjoy my food. Eventually, friends started spreading the word that I was a caterer (I was not; I just adored cooking), and a number of clients started asking me to cater their parties. I said yes.
What sparked your passion for organic, locally grown food? I grew up in countries where buying local is normal because people cook seasonally and go to markets to buy fresh food. My mother cooked like that, so I never knew anything else. Never packaged, never canned. But it was not just our family. Most people followed a lifestyle that included pretty much a Mediterranean type diet—very balanced.
How did you choose the name Alma? Alma is a very beautiful name that represents the soul and the heart. This is a place where I can share everything I believe creates comfort and delight for the community. The menu will highlight Venezuelan and Latin American cuisine. It will include the famous and beloved arepas (crispy corn patties), empanadas, ceviches, stews and fish and meat dishes of the vast surrounding region. We have chosen to cook those popular foods with a contemporary approach.
Tell me about your duo chef team at Alma. I have the enormous good fortune to have two Venezuelan chefs with exceptional, award-winning careers: Enrique Limardo and Federico Tischler. Both have trained in the culinary schools in Spain, have worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants and have had rich careers in our home country as well. Together we will introduce a whole repertoire of flavors entirely new to Baltimore.
At Azafrán and Alkimia, you serve lots of scholars. Who do you envision as your clientele at Alma? Canton is a very diverse population in age and professions. We hope to seduce everyone with our full-flavor small plates and our bar.
Do you see a connection between your art and your cooking? Yes! Food is the biggest privilege in life, and the ingredients are beautiful. When you share it with your community, it is a pretty fantastic experience.
Katie Boyts likes to peek into the Dooby’s dining room from the kitchen to watch people eating her baked goods. “It’s such a treat for me,” says Boyts, who also follows her goodies on Instagram under #doobysbreadclub. Here, patrons post photos of their BLTs and brunches. Dooby’s Bread Club was born last year when Boyts realized that customers wanted to buy her fresh-baked loaves to take home. “I didn’t have time to do retail every day,” she says. So Dooby’s started what she calls a “bread CSA.” For $35 a month you get four weeks of bread (one loaf per week), plus “a little accouterment.” The weekly add-ons might include a jar of apple citrus spice jam, roasted garlic olive oil or herbed butter. “Sometimes we throw in some cookies,” Boyts says. The choices generally follow a cycle, with sourdough, focaccia and par-baked baguettes upended by “a wild card.” That may be burger rolls in the summer or challah and hot cross buns during the spring holidays. “It’s funny how bread brings this happiness to people. It keeps me excited about the craft,” she adds. 802 N. Charles St., 410-609-3162, doobyscoffee.com —Martha Thomas
A ‘Seabiscuity’ Brew
In 1979, a year after Affirmed became the last thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown, the Mt. Washington Tavern began an acclaimed run of its own down the hill from the home of the Preakness. Rather than simply having a few beers to celebrate their recent 35th birthday, the bar owners decided to create one: Old Hilltop Amber Lager. Named to honor Pimlico’s original clubhouse and the Tavern’s ties to the track, this smoothly sessionable and mildly malty—one might say Seabiscuity—lager was developed by Heavy Seas’ Hugh Sisson and Joe Gold in conjunction with the Tavern’s owners. They then went the extra furlong and commissioned a one-of-a-kind tap handle for the beer’s permanent spot in the establishment’s otherwise rotating stable of brews. Southeast Baltimore woodcarver Mark Supik—creator of tap handles nationwide—crafted a custom wood base for a cast metal horse created by yet another artisan associate of the Tavern. “We spent months visiting both the brewery and the woodshop to get everything just right,” says co-owner Rob Frisch. Local institution, local brewer, local artist—now that’s the trifecta. 5700 Newbury St., 410-367-6903, mtwashingtontavern.com —Mark Tough
When Shake Shack opened in the Inner Harbor in February, folks lined up in frigid winds and impend- ing snow for the chance to, well, sip a frosty milkshake. If nothing else, this proves that Baltimoreans are as food-obsessed as anyone in Brooklyn or Portland. For their second annual Emporiyum Food Market on April 18 and 19, Mindy Schapiro and Sue-Jean Chun have invited some 75 food vendors and artisans—half local, half from places like Boston, L.A., Charleston and Brooklyn—to offer their wares at the H & S Bakery Distribution Center.
Last year’s Emporiyum, at half the size, was a sellout. Look for gourmet cotton candy from Sky Candy of Orlando, kale-scented candles from Produce Candles in Charleston and Pernicious Pickles from Costa Mesa, Calif. Many of Baltimore’s small-batch stars also will make an appearance, including Haute Mess rubs and seasonings, Hex Ferments, Pure Chocolate by Jinji , along with small bites from restaurants like Fleet Street Kitchen, the Corner Pantry and yes, Shake Shack. Tickets, $15-$40. 600 S. Eden St. (corner of S. Central and Fleet) theemporiyum.com —Martha Thomas
Use Your Noodle
Brian and Larry Leonardi have found their sweet spot in Firenze, their new Reisterstown restaurant designed by Brian Thim of Rita St. Clair Associates. The menu ranges from fresh pasta and panini to meatball sliders, veal piccata and a 100-bottle wine list. Back in the day, the Leonardi brothers (along with sister Suzy Maria) ran two grab ‘n’ go pasta shops for Casa di Pasta, a small wholesale noodle factory in Little Italy with a storefront on Albemarle.
Firenze, too, is a family affair. Brian handles operations while Larry helms the kitchen. On a recent visit, Larry’s wife, Kelly, stood over the pasta extruder coaxing out fresh ribbons of fettuccine and twisted commas of gemelli while their 21-year-old son, Zachary (about to graduate from a local culinary program), oversaw the cooks. Even the elder generation is involved. “When we first opened, my 75-year-old father was in here washing dishes,” says Larry. 2 Hanover Road, Reisterstown, 410-394-5577 eatfirenze.com –Martha Thomas
Pie in the Sky
Masterminds behind the mega-popular Iggies, Lisa Heckman and Peter Wood have relocated their pizza ovens from Mount Vernon to Towson, taking over the more intimate former Havana Road location. “We wanted a smaller space as we wanted to take our food and service quality to an even higher level,” says Heckman, who with Wood sold the roomier Iggies café to retired pharmacist Jim Pak in July. (Pak keeps Iggies alive, aiming to change not a pepperoni, incidentally.) The new Local Pie seats 30—or 42, Heckman says, in a pinch—and décor is bright, airy and unfussy. Schmancy, however, are the seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients that make for a menu that’s always changing. Right now, try the bison meatball pizza (Monkton bison, by the way) drizzled in a honey sauce, the duck egg pizza and March mushroom special. But, wait! What about the uber-light crust that‘s Iggie’s luscious trademark? “We’re still producing a thin crust pizza, but after that the similarities end,” Heckman says. 8 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson, 410-583-0008, localpietowson.com
Prem Raja Mahat is like the Nepali Bob Dylan—with concert dates set through 2015 and a tendency to get recognized in airports for his face as well as his extensive catalog of Nepali folk music. Mahat, who relocated here in 1996, and serves as Consul General to the U.S., thinks of his down-home new restaurant, Nepal House, as another ambassador of his native tradition. Now occupying the former Mugal Garden space—which Mahat managed for nine years (and meanwhile co-owned Himalayan House in Locust Point)—the spot also stars the owner’s wife, Kadita, who hosts with quiet warmth, and their four children. In addition to Indian standbys, chef Kansi Gautam serves up Nepali essentials: Dal lentil rice, lamb, mustard greens, black lentils and yogurt. Thakali Thali, Mahat’s top recommendation, can be chicken or goat kabob. “This food is good for your health,” Mahat adds. “And we eat what we cook—we eat together.” 920 N. Charles St., 410-547-0001, nepalhouseinc.com