As in most cases, this review is based on only one visit to the restaurant, so please keep that in mind as you read it.
Blue Hill Tavern has been on my "must visit" list ever since it opened during the summer of 2009. Over and over again, I heard great things from other food bloggers about the place - usually about it's amazing happy hour and completely un-Baltimore decor. All the praise made me anxious to get there, so when Mike announced that he wanted to go for his birthday, I was all over it.
I had, however, heard a couple of criticisms along with the praise. Jeff and Christine live nearby and have been to Blue Hill a bunch of times. Last spring, Jeff confirmed for me that the decor and the appetizers are fantastic, but sometimes the entrees falter. I find that's the case at a lot of places - that the appetizers are better than the entrees - and (spoiler!) Blue Hill was one of them. Jeff was right.
The night started out in a super promising way. We arrived at the restaurant en masse - Cooper and I piled into Kyle's car along with Kyle, Mary, Mike and Alicia. When we walked in, we really were impressed with the decor. It's open and modern and feels legitimately fresh - it's unlike any other restaurant in Baltimore (don't let their boring website fool you - it is a great space). Much of the seating is upstairs, but the hostess offered us a big round table in the window, just next to the front door. She was almost apologetic, but for no reason. Since we all love a round table and we also love watching the action, we were pretty happy about it.
We started dinner with a round of drinks and a couple of snacks, including the Buffalo style nuts and the crostini with spreads. The Buffalo nuts were warm and spicy with small chunks of bleu cheese - I liked them, but not everyone at the table was a fan of the warm nut + cheese format. The feta butter that came with the crostini was more generally well-received, though I actually thought it could be more feta-y. They were a nice starter, though, as were our cocktails (a mix of the standard glasses of wine and martinis, plus a New Old-Fashioned for Mike, which was just subtle enough to be delicious).
Jeff was dead on when he said that the appetizers were excellent. Cooper had a sweetbreads special, which everyone liked (even though not everyone likes sweetbreads) and Kyle and Mary shared the ahi tuna, which was really nice, though it didn't include any big surprises. Alicia was impressed with her tomato soup and grilled cheese wedges - cute and tasty.
My starter was the hit of the course (actually, of the whole meal): a salad of greens and very lightly crusted calamari, dressed in a spicy chili dressing with peanuts. The calamari was cooked perfectly - not over or underdone - and was crusted with just enough seasoned cornmeal. The dressing, though, really made the dish. It's balance of spice and peanut had an obvious Thai influence, but tasted thoroughly modern.
I could've been completely satisfied with just my salad, but we still had an entree to tackle. I ordered against type - there was veal on the menu, and I almost always order veal when I can, but instead I chose the miso-glazed black cod, served with shrimp and peanutty soba noodles. The fish and the shrimp were nicely seasoned and cooked correctly - I enjoyed them both. The noodles were good, too, but there were just way, way too many of them. There had to have been close to a pound of noodles on my plate, when the dish required about an eighth of a pound. I don't usually feel badly about not finishing my dinner, but I felt the need to apologize when my plate was taken away. There were that many noodles left.
Mike and Mary both got the surf and turf - a small filet paired with a crab cake. A safe order, yes, but they were both very happy with the selection. Their meat was cooked properly and the crab cake was a good one. Kyle made everyone laugh by ordering the cowboy steak, which was bigger than his head and came with about a pound of sweet potato fries. It was ridiculous and half of it went home with him. He enjoyed the flavor, but still - laughably large.
Unfortunately, Alicia wasn't as happy with her order of cobia topped with a blue crab remoulade. She hadn't imagined the remoulade as so cold and creamy, and that's really not her style. I think she wished she'd gotten the shrimp and grits or one of the specials.
Cooper ordered the bison osso bucco, which gives me an opportunity to make an overall critique of the menu. His meal was good - the bison was from Gunpowder Bison and a nice, well-seasoned piece of meat - but like much of the menu, it was prepared sous vide. I'm not sure that's the best preparation for a lean meat like bison when it's being served as osso bucco, and after reviewing the menu, I couldn't help but feel like the sous vide option was a little gratuitous. Most restaurants in Baltimore do not prepare anything sous vide, so it's understandable that Blue Hill would want to set itself apart with the preparation. But they might go too far. Since we didn't order everything on the menu, I can't comment across the board, but if Cooper's bison is any indication, sous vide might not add to every dish.
So overall, our entrees were good, though not quite as delicious as our appetizers.
With both the apps and the entrees, we drank a $30 bottle of Malbec that was completely agreeable. While the wine list isn't exhaustive, it's interesting enough and is fairly reasonable overall (and I'd have more to say about it if the wine list link on the website weren't broken).
After dinner, we kept things going, with a pretzely, chocolatey birthday dessert for Mike (sans clapping, singing waitresses) and a collection of post-dinner drinks for the rest of us. Jeff and Christine left their new baby at home with Christine's mom and walked down to have a drink with us, and we ran into Cooper's cousin Fleur and her husband Scott on their way out (the table next to the door was a good one for spotting people we knew).
Finally, a quick note on the service: our waitress was friendly and on top of things and willing to laugh gamely at even the worst of our jokes. And believe me, Kyle made some bad jokes (he thinks he's charming).
Overall, it was a good experience, if not absolutely, perfectly, perfect. But what is? The restaurant never felt over or under-crowded, which was nice. It definitely had a grown up, but not stuffy, bar vibe, and if I lived in the city, I'd certainly head there for happy hour on a regular basis.