Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dinner at Wit + Wisdom: Some Observations

Last night, Cooper and I celebrated our eighth anniversary (which was really on Tuesday) with dinner at Wit + Wisdom, Michael Mina's newish restaurant in the Four Seasons downtown.

I won't write a bona fide review of the restaurant - I didn't take notes during dinner or anything - but I will offer some observations.

Before going to dinner, I did a fair amount of homework. I read Richard Gorelick's cautiously positive review from last winter, just after the restaurant opened, as well as Tom Sietsema's less enthusiastic take on the place from last month.

I knew we'd be visiting during a time of flux: As Sietsema wrote his review, Mina called him to announce that W+W's original executive chef, Benjamin Lambert, was on the way out. Shortly after that announcement, Clay Miller, formerly of Trummer's on Main in Clifton, Virginia, was announced as the new executive chef.

Miller doesn't officially start until July 5th, but a few new dishes have already appeared on the menu, including a lobster pot pie that runs a breathtaking $48. We did not order the lobster pot pie because...well because, are you kidding me? I'm from Maryland. I don't even like lobster all that much. When something is that expensive - it's $6 more than the next costliest entree and it is certainly one of the most expensive entrees on any menu in Baltimore - I assume people order it just to prove they can, rather than because they loooove lobster (or pot pie). It might be delicious, but it's also the gastronomical equivalent of an expensive purse covered in tacky logos. I want no part of that.

Hilariously expensive seafood dishes aside, we were actually quite pleased with the experience. It wasn't perfect - and it probably should've been more perfect - but it was a very good meal.

We started with drinks in the bar, which is lovely and runs like a well-oiled machine. It was mostly filled with finance types (and the ladies who want to meet them) - no surprise considering the restaurant's Harbor East location. In the few minutes that we waited for our drinks, four or five different bartenders asked us if we needed anything. They were on it.

The drinks themselves - The Company for me and the Aviation for Cooper - were pretty kick-ass. Both came in champagne coupes, ice cold, and both were interesting, flavorful and very drinkable.

During dinner itself, there were a lot of high points. We started with roasted bone marrow, which came with mushroom jam and pickled ramps and was just about as great as that sounds (rich, but the jam and ramps cut the intensity of the marrow nicely). We also tried the Carolina Gold "porridge," which comes in a cast iron pot, topped with an egg, slivers of duck tongue and cracklins.

One of the complaints I'd read about W+W is that too many dishes arrive in cast iron skillets. I think this is probably true, though the Staub skillets are adorable. The porridge seemed appropriately plated - it's mildly country, after all - but actually might have been better in a dish that wasn't so deep. We loved all the flavors, but all of the extras floated on top of the dish. Once we scooped them up, we were left with extra rice and, well, that's boring.

Dinner for me was roasted rockfish, cooked perfectly, with surry sausage-stuffed calamari. I am sure that stuffed calamari's not new, but for me, that was the most exciting part of the meal. The squid became the sausage casing and the flavor of the fish was an excellent complement for the sausage. The plate also included a couple of peeled cherry tomatoes, which to me were just a throwaway, and toasted vermicelli dressed in a preserved orange sauce. The vermicelli added an interesting crispy texture to the rest of the dish, and a welcome touch of sweetness.

Cooper opted for lamb, which came three ways - a chop (I didn't try, but it looked perfectly cooked), as a sausage stuffed in peppers (delicious), and in a baffling, but really good, little rectangle of shredded meat, coated with what might have been dry vermicelli. It was unlike anything I've had before - and it tasted good. An interesting surprise.

Desserts at W+W (the Baltimore Bar for me and a coffee and devil's food cake combo for Cooper) are architectural and beautiful and tasted as good as they should. Coffee, from Lamill, was excellent as well. Overall, everything we ate was spot on.

We were also super happy with the assistance we got from Julie, the sommelier. She recommended a smoky Rhone Valley syrah, with a great, soft mouthfeel, that stood up to the lamb without overpowering the rockfish - and that was within the budget we set. (As a side note, the wine list is spendy - there's very little under $50.) It was clear that she listened to what we had to say about our preferences and that she knows both the list and the menu very well. Plus, she was nice. We came away from the interaction totally impressed and pleased.

Our waiter, Donny, was nice, too - as were all of the assorted runners and busboys and other staff members we talked to. There were a couple of service glitches - a beer that never arrived, too long of a wait for the check (which is a total pet peeve of mine) - and while they didn't ruin our meal, a restaurant in the Four Seasons shouldn't have those glitches.

A restaurant in the Four Seasons also shouldn't have customers who look like they just rolled out of bed. For the most part, I'm glad that Baltimore's a casual town when it comes to restaurants. I grew up going out to dinner in Annapolis, where, as my parents like to tell anyone who will listen, you can go anywhere in shorts and boat shoes. But every once in a while, it's nice to dress up.

Most of the people we saw last night looked presentable, but I was distracted by one guy in sloppy jeans and a t-shirt and another guy in a tank top. A tank top! I don't think W+W needs to institute a dress code, but I do think that as a city, we should have a little decorum. Come on, people.

So, in the end, what's our verdict? We'd definitely go back for drinks with friends, and snacks at the bar. But I'm not sure we'll return for dinner. Ultimately, if I'm looking for a serious meal, I'd rather go to Woodberry Kitchen. That's not a knock against Wit + Wisdom - Woodberry, with all it's hipster-foodie cred, is just more my style. Based on what we ate, the food is equally delicious, but a challenging charcuterie board appeals to me more than artfully presented marrow. (Side note: the jeans and t-shirt combo wouldn't have bothered me at Woodberry, either.)

Not everyone would agree, nor should they. I'm glad we've got both options in the city. And I'm certainly glad our experience outperformed Sietsema's. It seems like things are on the right track at W+W, which is good news all around.


Ryan said...

a thorough and well documented escursion. me and my girlfriend went there a couple weeks after it opened and while it was good, it was as remarkable as the prices dictated it should be. that and i still get peeved about the music they played then (it seems to have mellowed on repeat visits for drinks).

i'm also with you on returning. i've since been back for some drinks and snacks, but that's about it.

Kit Pollard said...

Thanks, Ryan! And I can't believe I forgot to mention the music! I was expecting it - I think it was Gorelick's review that made a comment about '90s hits, but it drove me crazy, too - it just doesn't fit. It can't be THAT hard to figure out the right mix!

Ryan said...

haha. no doubt. just not kenny g and not LMFAO. somewhere deep in the middle-low area there.

i get what they're trying to do making it seem more casual (they do this also with calling it a "tavern". HA!) but their price points say otherwise.

the same is exactly true for PABU

Kit Pollard said...

Ha - yes. It seems like there are lots of options between Kenny G and LMFAO. We heard a little rap, but also a distinctly Lite 102-ish selection. Just strange - and strange enough that it was noticeable, so it wasn't just background.

I agree that they're trying to be a little casual, but it's forced. If you're going to serve fancy and expensive food, own it.

theminx said...

Even Koco's Pub has a "no tank tops on men" dress code!

Kit Pollard said...

I was actually shocked by the tank top. I think it was supposed to be fashiony,'s a tank top. On a man.


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