Bolton Hill institution more than makes the grade
Published: June 22, 2011
Take one: It’s a hot night in Baltimore, and the dining room at b bistro is so crowded there’s barely room to open the front door to tell the host we have a reservation. He’s all apologies, but it’s going to be a short wait for tables. So we opt to join the solitary gentleman drinking red wine from a stemless Reidel glass and two women in white linen outside under the trees at one of b’s sidewalk tables. We’re brought glasses of rosé and a Victory Prima Pils, and later lamb belly in a pool of garlicky, melting beans ($12); a perfect white panna cotta of buffalo-milk mozzarella sprinkled with marcona almonds and sturdy pickled ramps ($8); and three heavenly buñuelos de bacalao, fried cakes of salt cod, mashed potatoes, and garlic ($9). We are checked on several times by the host, moved to a table under an umbrella by a server when the clouds gray and threaten. And when the skies burst open and blow sheets of rain across the table, the staff shoots outside to help us scoop up plates and glasses and ushers us into a waiting table.
Ten minutes later, appetizers finished, the power goes out in the restaurant. There’s only a brief hush before diners launch back into their conversations, their faces lit by candles. “This is fantastic,” exclaims a man at the next table who, it turns out, is in town from Canada for a conference and is making a return visit to b, as he observes the crowd continue to drink and talk until the staff, armed with flashlights and old-fashioned manual charge-card machines, explains that the kitchen is unable to turn out entrées. Reluctantly, the customers settle up and leave the restaurant, only to linger on the sidewalk outside.
Take two: Early in the week, on a cool night, it’s the outdoor tables at b that draw customers. It’s easier to get a table indoors and watch the meet and greet of neighborhood regulars and Smalltimore encounters, and spy on dinners—the hamburgers and fries, pots of mussels in gilded saffron cream, radishes perched on slices of baguette, and tiny chocolate cakes—through the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows.
Service is still attentive, as it was in the rush of hot bodies on the previous visit. Extra bread is offered to sop up the broth remaining in a bowl of Virginia clams drizzled with a paprika-stained rouille ($10). Wine, selected from a small, well-chosen list, is poured; comfort is ascertained.
This service, along with some lovely, lovely dishes, is why b continues to please, drawing people from the neighborhood and across the city (and the continent) to Bolton Hill, and why I was almost grateful for the storm that cut short our first visit, necessitating a second visit within the span of a week. I’d go back again in a day or two if I could to sample the mussels or the goat cheese ravioli, recommended by the man drinking red wine on our first visit, or the radishes, from the restaurant’s Fig Leaf Farm in Howard County, served with bagna cauda, or any of a half-dozen or so dishes.
Which is not to say I was disappointed in any way by the entrées ordered. Crispy duck leg confit ($23) boasts a neat contrast in textures, the silky leg meat being the perfect foil for crispy skin. Nestled in garbure, a salty broth spiked with ham, cabbage, and white beans, the dish is rustic France at its best. Spring lamb ragout ($19) captures the flavors of the season in green peas and fresh mint. At times the restaurant uses shredded lamb in this dish, but on both evenings we visited, mild, house-made lamb sausage was substituted. Though I haven’t had the former preparation, using the sausage suggests a lighter end result, making the meat, tomato-rich broth, and accompanying featherlight gnocchi more discrete components of the dish, rather than a heartier amalgam the use of the shredded meat would suggest. (Yes, this food makes you want to geek out and analyze).
As b’s web site points out, nearly everything in the restaurant is made in-house and it shows, from the spongy foccaccia-like bread to ice cream in flavors like cardamom and honey to the pretty strawberry shortcake ($8), all butter-laden biscuits and sweet berries tucked into a tiny cast-iron skillet. Bittersweet chocolate pot de crème ($8) shares a similarly clever presentation, poured into a shallow canning jar that you twist and turn to make sure the accompanying pistachio biscotti and your spoon can reach every creamy mouthful.
The glitches at b are few and easily remedied. Clean menus are a must, particularly when the menu changes frequently. Over two evenings we received five dirty menus, which is five too many. And salt levels could be tweaked too. I’m not salt sensitive, but both the clam broth and the garbure could have used less.
Otherwise, despite a rainstorm, a loss of power, and a repeat visit, each experience at b was full of the pleasure that fine, organic service and thoughtful food can bring. Service at b feels natural, never managed or staged. And likewise, the food feels not only appropriately seasonal, but appropriately special enough to make an evening out feel like an evening out, without being fussy or formal.
As we sat outside on the first evening, one diner remarked how otherworldly, almost European Bolton Street felt, and struggled to come up with another Baltimore neighborhood restaurant where you could dine outside under trees in a residential neighborhood. There aren’t many, but in a handful of gems, b is surely one of them.
B bistro is open Tuesday through Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac