Friday, February 12, 2016

Go to Aromes

After a good dinner, I'm usually very content, but there's a particular feeling I get after an extra-special dinner. Call it a glow, maybe. Or giddiness. Either way, it comes with an urge to talk about the meal with everyone I see.

 That's how I felt after a recent dinner at Aromes. It was a media dinner, organized by Amy "Charm City Cook" Langrehr, and it was fabulous.
Clockwise from top left: Jerusalem artichoke and salsify with Jerusalem artichoke milk and green juniper berry oil; menu; carrot miso creme brulee with lime ash and swarnadwipa; sea salt-baked celeriac with goat cheese, celeriac and chickweed extraction juice, shaved dried celeriac and celery vinegar jelly; potato ratte doughnut with sea urchin fish sauce and fresh sea urchin, fried scallops, coffee and licorice powder and lovage cream; sweet potato "risotto" with spoon fig leaf milk, lemon verbena oil and crispy black rice crackers; mugwort beer-braised oxtail taco with ramp vinegar in caramelized hay milk skin shell; grilled duck breast with duse seaweed and butter and slow-roasted beet sprayed with elderflower vinegar. (Monkfish with eggplant oil, served with fermented emmer grain and squid ink, pickled black radishes, buttermilk and lemon thyme oil is not pictured because my photos were super blurry.)

Aromes is a tiny BYOB spot on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden. The vibe is warm and simple, with a big plate glass window, bare wooden tables and an opening in the back, giving diners a glimpse of what Chef Steve Monnier and Sous Chef Jeff Schultz are doing in the kitchen.

Monnier is French, though he moved to the U.S. in 2002, first to southern California. He opened Aromes in Baltimore in 2014. Though he clearly has classical training, his food is anything but traditional. It's wildly creative, smart and - importantly - delicious. I was reminded of Tae Strain's food at demi, the tiny spot in Belvedere Square (that I still miss) - but Monnier's food is earthier than demi's high polish fare.

Each night, Monnier presents a new, multi-course menu. Diners have the option of ordering a three- or six-course meal - but there's no picking which courses. It doesn't matter, though. Everything is spectacular.

On the menu, dishes are described by a handful of key ingredients, from sea urchin to sweet potato. On the plate, they're wonderfully complex, technique on top of technique. And they taste good.

One of the highlights of our meal was a surprise off-menu dish - an oxtail taco. The meat was braised in mugwort beer and the shells were about as far from Old El Paso as you can imagine. Made with the caramelized skin formed by cooking milk - milk that had been infused with hay - they were smooth, delicate and outdoorsy in the very best way. And so interesting!

Everyone at the table also went crazy for one of the night's simpler dishes, a thick slice of grilled duck breast served with a slow-roasted beet. But, of course, it was more involved than that. Prior to cooking on a Japanese grill, the duck was marinated in fermented brown rice. The beet was roasted at a low temperature for five hours with dulse seaweed and butter, until it was papery and thin and almost resembled an artichoke.

The duck, we all agreed, might have been the best any of us had ever had (and it was not a table full of people who shy away from food). That was in part because of the creativity and behind-the-scenes flourishes involved...but it was also because Monnier and Schultz simply know how to cook.

Chefs as creative as Monnier run the risk of getting too cutesy - of doing things because they can, even if maybe they shouldn't. That did not happen at Aromes.

A word, too, about the service. Because the space is small, during our visit, one waiter, Gilles Mascarell, handled the whole room. He was excellent - and that was not a surprise, given his pedigree. Most notably, for nearly a decade before joining Aromes, he worked at Salt Tavern.

There is just something about Salt Tavern alumni. Frequently, when I've had seriously good service, I find out after the fact that the server did a stint at Salt. (Note: I might be biased because Teresa from Thames Street Oyster House is both my neighbor and my favorite waitress in the city - but I still think I'm right about this.)

I couldn't have asked for anything more from the meal - though it's not a dining experience that's for everyone. Some people get twitchy when they don't have choices on the menu, or prefer food that is more straightforward than creative. Both of those are perfectly acceptable preferences - and if you do fall in one of those categories, Aromes might not be the restaurant for you.

But if you don't mind putting yourself in the hands of a super-creative chef for an evening, you need to get there sooner rather than later. It's a special experience. One that'll make you glow.

Aromes, 3520 Chestnut Avenue, Hampden; 410-235-0035;

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Drink Crush: Amado Nervo at Clavel

Cooper and I went to Clavel in Remington last week and I loved everything, from the ceviche to the tacos. But the love I had for the Amado Nervo was, well, bordering on obsessive.

Clavel is a mezcaleria, so it's not shocking that the drink includes El Buho mezcal, which is made mostly from the espadin variety of the agave plant, Prioriat Natur vermouth, rose cava, lime and raw cilantro honey syrup. The glass is rimmed with chunky black sea salt.

The drink looks like green juice, smells like a whole lawn full of fresh-cut cilantro, and tastes...magical.

Given the intensity of the cilantro aroma, and the bright color, I expected a mouthful of greenery - but that's not what I got. This might be the most well-balanced drink I've ever had and I'm guessing that honey syrup has something to do with it.

It's sweet and fresh - but not too sweet or fresh - and the mezcal gives it just the tiniest bit of bite. I know a lot of people think they don't like mezcal, but this could be the drink to change your mind.

Really, any trip to Clavel could change your mind. There's more mezcal there than in the rest of the city combined, I think, and they know how to talk about it and what to do with it. The atmosphere is exceedingly laid back and the food is wonderful. You should really go. I'm just upset I waited so long.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Stuff I Love: Charm City Chocolate

It's Valentine's week...have you done your shopping yet?

Even if you have, you can always buy more, especially when it comes to chocolate. So you should check out Charm City Chocolates, the new candy shop in Hampden, on the Avenue, near The Charmery.

The shop, recently opened by my friend (and former Sun editor) Michelle Zimmerman and her husband Todd, is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a candy shop. It's bright and cozy and filled with tons and tons of great-looking candy, including some amazing handmade chocolates.

Michelle and Todd learned to make chocolate from Todd's family, who owned a candy shop in Greenville, SC, and at Charm City Chocolate, they put their own spin on sweets.

And those sweets are good. I brought home a whole pile of chocolate for Dixon and Cooper - and we loved all of it. I can't really pick a favorite, though I was especially sorry I only took home one coconut-filled chocolate. I could've eaten three or four more in one sitting.

Dixon is thrilled that we've finished we have an excuse to go back.

Michelle and Todd obviously know what they're doing in the chocolate kitchen, but I'm sure that part of the reason the candy is so good - and the shop so charming - is that they get why eating chocolate is such a lovable experience.

"Chocolate is a way to treat yourself," Michelle says. "An important part of life is being good for yourself - treating yourself."

Michelle and Todd also know that chocolate's appeal as a treat is anything but simple. "It resonates with people in terms of memories we have as a child," says Michelle. "It's a part of so many great occasions - birthdays and family dinners. Maybe your mom had a special chocolate cake she made or your grandmom had a special brownie. That all comes together in your head when you indulge in chocolate."

Proust had his madeleines...and we have our chocolate. For Valentine's Day, some gifts of chocolate will remind the recipient of memories. Other gifts will create memories.

But all of them will taste fabulous.

Charm City Chocolate; 809 West 36th Street, Hampden; 443-449-5164

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Stuff They Love: Kinderhook Snacks on Golden West

Just about a year ago, I had the very sweet opportunity to write about Katie Horn and Marie Stratton, the ladies behind Baltimore's Kinderhook Snacks.

If you haven't had the snacks, you should. They're so good - my favorite are the macaroons - and it's a bonus that Horn and Stratton are super, super nice.

When I asked them to talk to me about something they love in Baltimore, they had a million glowing things to say about the food, beer and - most importantly - the staff at Golden West in Hampden.

Golden West has been a part of the Hampden community for years and people love it for a lot of reasons. For Horn and Stratton, it's a port in the storm when they get busy. "Since we started Kinderhook, we've had so many long days and late nights in the kitchen, after which we are needing a good beer and good food. Golden West has been our most favorite place to go in these seemingly dire situations and the staff there continually lifts our spirits," they say.

"They recommend great beers, they don't judge us when we finish off an entire Green Chili Cheeseburger and fries (in fact, they congratulate us) and they always seem to know when we need a shot of tequila."

The Kinderhook ladies love that not only does the GW bar staff feed them burgers and tequila, they also have interesting creative pursuits of their own. David Spelce is one of their favorite bartenders, they say, and "a wildly talented artist."

And Edan Perrigo, Stratton and Horn's former Charles Village neighbor, works behind the bar and is also part of Great American Canyon Band, a Baltimore indie-folk band releasing a new album this spring. The band has already released one video from the new album, which I'm sharing (with permission from them) here:

This is some of what I love most about Baltimore. It's the kind of place where you can find a home at a restaurant because you like the food...then discover that the people behind the bar are talented artists and musicians and great bartenders. And you never know - maybe the people on the stools next to yours make great snacks, too.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

On Advertising and Aspiration

It's Super Bowl week, which means it's ad season.

For my first eight years out of college, I worked in advertising. To agency people, the Super Bowl is Christmas. The people creating the ads you see during the game are industry rock stars and it's always entertaining to see what clients are dropping gazillions of dollars on.

It's been twelve years since I was an agency employee, but having worked in the industry still colors my worldview. When I look at ads, I automatically try to figure out the strategy behind it.

Kenny MF'ing Powers: Shiller of Shots
That's why I found this short blog post so intriguing. It's a quick comparison between two current liquor promotional campaigns: one for Jack Daniels' limited edition Sinatra Century whiskey, which draws on Frank Sinatra's affinity for the brand, and one for Southern Comfort, which stars comedian Danny McBride.

As a general rule, liquor advertising is an exercise in aspiration. When you're trying to convince someone to buy your booze, you appeal to who they want to be. During my advertising heyday, the power of aspirational cocktails was obvious every time I walked into a bar filled with wannabe Carrie Bradshaws spilling their cosmos on their Forever 21 going out tops.

But back to the present. That post about the Danny McBride Southern Comfort campaign mentions that the brand's sales are on a downward slide - in fact, net sales dropped by 7% in the first 6 months of 2015 and the brand is currently being sold off by owners Brown-Foreman. On one hand, I'm sorry for SoCo's soon-to-be-former owners - and for Wieden + Kennedy, the very smart agency behind the campaign. I'm sure they're disappointed. But should they be surprised?

While I think that Danny McBride is super funny, I certainly don't aspire to be him. Yes, I realize I'm not the target market. I also realize the  campaign does its best to gussy up McBride as SimCity James Bond and spin him as an off-kilter Most Interesting Man in the World. But underneath it all, he's still Kenny Powers. And does anyone aspire to be Kenny Powers, even if he's wearing a tux or hanging out with a flamingo?

My guess is that while SoCo's target demographic - likely 18-34 year old guys - think he's funny and would like to hang out with somebody like Danny McBride, they don't want to personally be him, the same way they'd aspire to be Frank Sinatra. Again, even if he's in a tux, with or without a pink bird.

Southern Comfort's advertising didn't always miss its mark. As soon as I read that post, my mind wandered back to the mid-90s, when the brand ran a campaign I absolutely loved, including one of my favorite ads of all time:
The original ad. Source.

I connected with this campaign, built around the tag line "Take It Easy," so completely - and at the time, I was the right age for the brand. 

Even then, I laughed a little at the notion that anybody would order Southern Comfort on the rocks at a bar. I have done too many SoCo and lime shots to think that's a reasonable drink order. But what I think is so smart about this ad is that it manages to be aspirational without overpromising. It doesn't suggest that SoCo drinkers will become Sinatra - but it does communicate that they'll live lives that are both fulfilling and laid back. 

For shots-doing kids in their 20s, trying to figure out their lives, that's some pretty powerful stuff. The McBride campaign delivers on laid back, but it misses in terms of fulfillment.

Now, I don't know the metrics. Maybe the "Take It Easy" campaign didn't do well - I can't find any sales data old enough to find out - and even if SoCo was selling like hotcakes back then, liquor sales are of course driven by more than advertising. 

But ads do matter. And ads that make us want something more...I think they matter most.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Cheers to Health and Happiness

No bar will ever own my heart like McGarvey's does
In news that I like because it confirms my core beliefs, Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has just released findings from a UK study indicating that people who booze it up (in moderation) at a local pub are happier, have higher life satisfaction and have more close friends than those who do not.

I can't find the original paper, but according to the Campaign for Real Ale, the lobbying group that funded the study, "People who have a 'local' and those patronising community-type pubs have more close friends on whom they can call for support, and are happier and more trusting of others than those who do not have a local. They also feel more engaged with their wider community."

The study also found that drinking a small amount had a positive effect on well-being and some social skills (shocking, I know).

The question is, of course, is whether there's any actual causation here - and if there is, which way does it go? Are people happier because they're at their local? Or are they more likely to go to their local when they're happier? Probably a combination of both.

My guess is that the power of the "local" isn't quite as heady here the US - but I think you'd find other entities/places taking its place.

Take my friends. They're mostly parents in our 30s and 40s, which means it's not likely that most can spend enough time at a bar to consider it a "local." But that doesn't mean we're unhappy or anti-social. Replace "local" with "pool" or "my kitchen" and you're in business.

The ultimate lesson here, I think, is that the more time we spend carousing together, the happier we are - and that carousing is easier when we have a reliable place to do it . And carousing is something that I fully support - whether it's in the pub down the street or my very own living room.

Stuff I Love: Papercuts and Pressed Flowers

Pretty papercut and flower pic courtesy of Annie Howe
I love pretty, intricate things, so it's no surprise that I am all about both papercuts and flower arrangements. They both involve close attention to detail and a straight up appreciation for beauty.

Here in Baltimore, we have some wonderful people who not only make these pretty things, they teach other people how to make them, too. So generous!

On February 11th, Annie Howe, of Annie Howe Papercuts, is teaming up with plant designer Liz Vayda from B. Willow for a papercutting and pressed flower arranging workshop at Trohv.

If you haven't seen either of their work, check them out right now. What they do is really special.

I talked to Annie about what she loves about being a papercut artist and teaching workshops like this one. "It gives me a chance to connect with people on a personal level and help build appreciation for papercutting and the many exciting possibilities it has artistically," she says.

She's especially excited about collaborating with Liz - their joint workshop is something new and promises to be really cool - and about hosting the workshop at Trohv, which she says is a great place for a class. Of course she loves Trohv. Who doesn't?!

The ticket price includes the instruction, of course, but also all the supplies and framing materials you'll need - and workshop attendees will also get a 15% discount at Trohv before the event.

Plus, there will be cocktails and snacks. Everyone loves cocktails and snacks. And flowers. And paper!

Papercutting and Pressed Flower Arranging Workshop with Annie Howe Papercuts and B. Willow Interior Plant Design. February 11, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Trohv, 921 West 36th Street, Hampden. $120. Buy tickets here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Old vs. New in the Cocktail Game

As much as I love cocktails, it's possible that I actually love books about cocktails even more. I can't stop buying them.

Two of my most recent acquisitions are a vintage copy of Playboy's Host and Bar Book by Thomas Mario and a brand new copy of The Architecture of the Shot by Paul Knorr, with illustrations by Melissa Wood.

The Playboy book was first published in 1955; my copy was printed in 1971. The architecture book, on the other hand, was hot off the presses in 2015. Both books about booze...but they couldn't be more different. I love them both.

Though at first glance the shot book seems like it could be gimmicky, really, it's not. The recipes are precise and descriptions are genuinely interesting. The book includes about 70 different shots, both classics and drinks that are new to me. It's a good mix. Plus, the graphics...I love them.

Seventy sounds like a lot of shots, until you open a book like the Playboy tome, which is truly encyclopedic, with some pretty fab pictures of '70s parties and all manner of cocktail information and advice, from glassware to etiquette.

"But while a host should be active and should generously offer his punches, his pitchers or trays of cocktails, he should remember at the height of his wassailing that he's a host and not a hustler," Mario writes in the first chapter, titled "The Code of Conviviality." In addition to Mario's extremely strong, non-holiday season use of the verb "to wassail," he offers some good advice here. And there's a lot more where that came from.

But also...there are drinks. Dozens and dozens and dozens of drinks, from straightforward martinis to so many that require egg whites, I couldn't even count them all. If this book is any indication, mid-century entertainers really got their arm workouts in, what with all the cocktail shaking.

Despite their different angles - one uber-precise and succinct, one lengthy, comprehensive and swinging - both books are pretty incredible. And both promise hours and hours of good times...followed by a hangover or two.


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