"Are you from the neighborhood?" asked the woman, gray-haired, fuschia-sweatered, from the table behind us. She had already been greeted by other diners passing through the narrow room while she finished her meal, and now, preparing to leave, she was warm while making our acquaintance. When we explained we lived across town, she brightly welcomed us to the neighborhood, adding how happy she was to have Butchers Hill Society Kitchen and Wine Lounge (32 N. Chester St., 453-9716, facebook.com/butchershillsociety) so close to home.
What makes a successful neighborhood restaurant? That easy access, for one. A welcoming environment and moderately priced menu don't hurt either. And a place where neighbors can greet each other is a boon for any community. Butchers Hill Society, one of three local projects by chef Malcom Mitchell, a Columbia native and seasoned competitor on the Food Network's "Beat Bobby Flay" and "Food Network Star," ticks all those boxes. The attractive space is classic Baltimore rowhouse done up in neutral grays and wood-tones, and using vintage treadle sewing machine bases as tables is a clever touch. Staff is eager to please, if a little overextended, and clearly the neighbors are fans—or at least one is.
Yet as much as I respect the spirit of Butchers Hill Society, my experience was something of a disappointment. Several months into its tenure, the restaurant feels like it's still finding its footing. Granted, when a well-meaning spot opens in your neighborhood, you're sometimes willing to overlook the glitches, but this restaurant needs some fine-tuning if it's going to draw patrons from across the city.
Some things are easily remedied. Clean, proofread, unstained, and updated menus (that don't advertise a Grand Opening that happened in November) will show diners that you caught those typos in wine prices (Newton Chardonnay at $30/glass?) several months ago. Or when a menu offers items categorized as "kitchen snacks," "social plates & flatbreads," "garden," and "big plates," wait staff would do well to either explain or ask patrons' preference about the sequence in which dishes arrive because it feels awkward to have a salad and an entree delivered at the same time.
There's also the matter of availability. It's not unheard of or irresponsible for a kitchen to be out of certain items. But why advertise a brand new dessert on Facebook and on the menu, and then be unable to serve it the following day? And this wouldn't be an issue if so many other things on the menu—another dessert (making only one of three available), several wine and beer selections, an appetizer—weren't available either.
Finally, if you're positioning yourself as a wine bar, the bar staff might try to be more articulate in making suggestions or answering questions about wine. For wine drinkers who are looking for something different, it's exciting to see wines from Turkey and Bulgaria on offer, but for bar staff (who double as wait staff for table service) to describe a white wine only as "not sweet" or effectively dismiss a red wine as "kind of light" is only part of the conversation and not very helpful.
Butchers Hill Society's menu skews American bistro where traditional items like charcuterie plates, hanger steak frites, and pheasant liver paté rub elbows with lobster tempura, sautéed edamame, and pear and prosciutto flatbread. This makes it easy to come in for a casual drink and a bite or a full dinner, as necessary. Certainly, a flatbread and a salad could make a satisfying light meal for one. The very mild-mannered Mediterranean lamb flatbread ($13) piles on the ingredients—cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta, red peppers, and nubs of ground lamb. It is tame, not overly spicy, and will not offend diners who think they don't like lamb. Likewise, the silky pheasant rillettes ($7)—all smoothness and light—boast no gaminess, though there's a slight kick in the homemade crackers that accompany.
Like the flatbread, both the roasted beet salad ($10) and the scallops entrée ($28) come with a laundry list of ingredients, though both dishes do better in highlighting distinctive flavors. The salad, in particular, blends a variety of textures and tastes. The acidic blood orange oil and grapefruit segments balance the soft richness of a beignet made from goat cheese, a sprinkling of candied pecans, and the sweetness of the beets themselves.
The plate of scallops is laid out like an artist's palette, with the plump, nicely crusted scallops, fingerling potatoes, and cherry tomatoes fanned out over a base of butternut squash purée, with dabs of dark, crunchy bacon jam scattered around the rim. Once again, it's a lot of flavors, but they play unexpectedly well with each other, and the scallops themselves offer a lovely succulence.
If Butchers builds on these strengths and mends the glaring rough edges, they might widen their net and see more diners from across town.
Butchers Hill Society Kitchen and Wine Lounge is open seven days a week for dinner.