As always, this is based on just one visit to the restaurant.
As I mentioned, last night we had dinner with our regular group of going-to-dinner friends at Woodberry Kitchen, Spike and Amy Gjerde and Nelson Carey's newish restaurant in Clipper Mill. It. Was. Awesome.
I don't (totally) mean to gush, but at the end of the meal, Cooper said "Honestly, this is the best meal I've had in a really long time." I concur. I had extremely high expectations, too, and usually when that's the case, I end up disappointed (see: Oregon Grille). Not so in this case.
Since Woodberry Kitchen opened last fall, it's been on the receiving end of a whole lot of ink, both on and offline. The general consensus (of reviewers, bloggers and my friends who'd already eaten there) is that overall, it's a good restaurant. A few of the dishes are a little lackluster, and sometimes service isn't absolutely tops, but overall, it's a really good restaurant.
Our experience was, I think, better than that.
Cooper and I arrived first and had a drink the bar while we waited for everybody else. Clipper Mill, as a whole, is a really pretty area and in kind of an unexpected spot, under 83 and just past a fairly industrial part of Hampden. The restaurant takes up a sizable chunk of the development, or so it seems. Walking in, it's sort of cavernous, all brick and concrete and rustic warehousey.
The entrance is through a big room that would be perfect for either a rehearsal dinner or a small office holiday party. While it's a little strange to enter through an empty room, it does give the place a homey feeling. Rounding the corner, we saw the restaurant itself - bright, noisy and busy. The kitchen is open and the space feels active.
We sat at the bar for about 20 minutes, just kind of looking around. Cooper had a beer (Clipper City - I think the whole "Clipper" thing got to him) and I had a pisco sour (aka mildly alcoholic limeade). The staff was efficient, friendly, and good-looking in a sort of nondescript way, and somehow very trim, like they spend all their off-hours training for marathons and doing bikram yoga.
Once everyone arrived, we were taken to our table - upstairs in a lofty space overlooking the main dining room. Warmer, but quieter, so pros and cons to each. Upstairs was just as cool, anyway.
For the next two hours, we ate and drank consistently and well. The service was good (save for one tiny hiccup when some coffees came 5 minutes before others, but there were apologies and it wasn't a big deal). One of the bigger complaints that I'd heard from friends was that the service was either rude, too quick or inconsistent. We didn't have that problem, and I don't think anybody at the nearby tables did, either.
Our food came in four rounds: snacks, appetizers (a mix of cold and warm plates), entrees and dessert. I think I probably tasted every single thing at the table - apparently as a group, we're not shy about eating off each others' plates.
So...about the food.
Snacks first. We had drinks with our snacks - I switched from the pisco sour to a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc. Most of the guys had beer, and Alicia ordered a mojito that she said was better than the one at Grand Cru (sort of surprising - I'd guess they'd be the same, since Nelson owns both. As an aside, it's easy to see thematic similarities between WK and GC's thoughtful and interesting drinks and wine lists). We ordered everything on the snack menu: Eastern shore popcorn - huge kernels with great flavor, but would've been better freshly popped; kitchen pickles and olives that I loved because I love anything drowned in vinegar; homemade potato chips and onion dip that was a gigantic hit with everybody; and deviled eggs that only Cooper and Mike ate (but that were apparently incredible).
For the next round, we switched to a red Cotes-de-Rhone (that we stuck with through the entrees). A few of us had the brick-oven roasted clams in a creamy tomato broth - perfectly cooked and the broth was just creamy and just savory enough (also a great dipping sauce for bread). Also at the table: a crunchy, bright shaved asparagus salad that made me sad that we're nearing the end of asparagus season, a Caesar that looked nice (but I didn't taste it), and Cooper's "duck nest" - a duck egg cooked on a thick slice of what might have been brioche, accompanied by sauteed ramps and chunks of the best bacon ever. I do mean chunks, too - they were thick knuckle-sized squares of pork. Incredible.
In addition to all of this, we ordered a pesto and red onion flatbread to share - lucky, too, as it was the perfect foil for the rest of my clam sauce.
Then came the entrees. Despite the fact that it was a million degrees outside, we went heavy. Lots of red meat. I had a braised lamb shoulder with a strawberry-rhubarb glaze, with a savory bread pudding on the side. The lamb was awesome - falling apart-tender - and the glaze was a perfect match, sweet but not cloying. My only complaint is that the savory bread pudding was a touch on the bland side, but it provided a good backdrop for the glaze and also for the little mound of something - it looked like spinach and onions but tasted sweeter - on the side of my plate. Wish I'd paid closer attention to that detail!
Bill lightened up the meal with Alaskan halibut - really gorgeously cooked and flavored without being oversauced. And everybody else? They had steak. Three different cuts: filet, hanger steak and the ribeye. All three were cooked exactly perfectly and were seasoned really well. Someone made the point that it was interesting to showcase the differences between the three cuts, but that no one felt like they "lost" by choosing one cut over another.
Cooper couldn't help but compare his hanger steak to the one he had at Vin a couple of years ago (right when they first opened and were clearly ironing out some kinks). It's a tough cut of meat - literally - and difficult to do right. At Vin, that showed. At Woodberry Kitchen, Cooper's steak was as tender as a filet. I don't know how they cooked it, or maybe if it was a difference in the quality of the meat, but whatever they did, they did it right.
On the dessert drinks front, we had a bunch of orders for the espresso float (everyone was pleased - we love espresso) and I had an Irish coffee that came as a DIY exercise (in a good way). The waiter brought me a cup, a French press full of coffee, a jigger of Kahlua, a jigger of Bushmills and a little dish of fresh whipped cream. I had enough for about 3 drinks and, clearly, had to share.
We all actually ordered dessert, too - an adorable and delicious mini strawberry pie, outrageously good mulberry ice cream with cookies and custard, a dense and bitter chocolate cake served with oranges and some sort of lighter cake (I could be misremembering that). I had lemon Malbec swirl ice cream - light and palate-cleansing.
So our dinner was perfect and when we went out to the valet, the pool across the street was lit up and gorgeous. Naturally, we spent the next five minutes talking about moving to the building attached to the pool and eating at Woodberry Kitchen every night. For one reason or another, most of our meals end in a serious discussion of buying real estate.
But really, I'm pretty sure we all could do worse than having all our meals cooked by the Woodberry Kitchen chefs. I'd eat there again tonight if I could.