When you think of farm-to-table restaurants, Canton Square, with its slew of sports bars, isn't exactly the neighborhood that comes to mind. And if I'm being frank, the term "farm-to-table" itself has become as ubiquitous as "hipster" over the years, used, more often than not, as a branding tool than an accurate description of what actually happens in the kitchen. Even Woodberry Kitchen chef Spike Gjerde recently told The Baltimore Sun, "I just think going into a restaurant that announces its farm-to-table intentions with a pitchfork in the corner, deviled eggs on the menu, and a list of farms they may or may not be sourcing from is kind of over." But recent visits to Cask & Grain Kitchen proved to me there are still places doing the concept justice.
Owners Steve Roop (of Portside Tavern) and Chef Paul Hajewski created a concept that focuses on sourcing directly from nearby farms (which are listed throughout the menu). And while that may sound like the same PR-speak that every new restaurant touts (hell, even Chipotle's in on it), what we discovered was surprisingly more Farm-to-Table than the typical "farm-to-table, but only sort of."
That's not to say you should expect an all-encompassing affair on the scale of a place like Woodberry Kitchen, where they don't even stock citrus because it's not available nearby. Instead, our server told us that the owners' goal was to create an accessible take on local sourcing that would give people in the neighborhood a nicer option for dinner (they also serve brunch on Sunday) than a lot of places nearby. I found the result to be a decidedly unpretentious and enjoyable.
That accessibility is evident when looking through the menu. I was relieved to find a concise list of options: three vegetables, two soups, five seafood, and five meat options. There's also a small starters menu of raw oysters, a shellfish tower, and cheese plate, but that's it. No sandwiches, no sides, no decision fatigue, and no restaurant FOMO (that is, fear of missing out—I'm notoriously indecisive, so I found this refreshing).
When we asked our server why they stuck to mostly entrees, she explained that the kitchen is shared by both Cask & Grain and Portside—where there are plenty of sandwich-type options available—and that for this space they really wanted to focus on quality over quantity.
One place where the concept is slightly cliché is in the décor. It's exactly as you would expect: barn-esque wooden walls, a wagon wheel on the wall here, an old wooden saw there, and Edison bulb light fixtures hanging from old wooden pulleys (OK, those are actually pretty cool). That's only a nitpick, though. During my visits, I enjoyed sitting at the low-lit, more lived-in feeling bar area than the bright dining room in the front of the space.
They have a solid cocktail program too. The mezcal-laced Lawyers, Guns, & Money ($12) had layers of smoke, citrus, pineapple, and a spicy finish thanks to some freshly grated red peppercorns that floated around in the heftily filled coupe glass. It was one of the better cocktails I've had in some time—which is saying something given that more and more places are investing an increasing amount of interest and energy into mixed drinks.
Less exciting was the Pisco sour ($12), which had an odd bitter taste that didn't sit well with my dining partner, and after giving it a sip myself, I had to agree. Later, we stuck to the wine list, which is curated by Roop, who knows his stuff: When he visited our table, he talked extensively about the glass of The Seeker Sauvignon Blanc ($9) my companion was raving about.
A dish of cavatelli and wild mushrooms ($12) was an earthy delight that announced that the kitchen was serious about its food. The tender pasta (made in-house) melded nicely with hearty Tuscan kale and a medley of four types of meaty, woodland mushrooms. As good as the cavatelli was, the sweet potato pierogies ($14) were even better—like, "how soon until I can order these again" better. Two handmade dumplings were pan fried, filled with a smooth, sweet potato puree, and laid atop a rich mushroom cream sauce with celery root slaw. The dough was impressively thin, a rarity with homemade pierogies, which can tend to be on the chewier side. These were some of the best I've had in the city.
Our only gripe about the vegetable section: The portions were small. We used them as appetizers, which worked nicely, but if vegetarians are expecting them as their entrée they might leave still hungry.
The black sea bass ($25), served atop a bouillabaisse broth with leeks and beans, was cooked well and the beans were tender and flavorful, but the broth was missing a bit of spice or pop to put it over the edge, and the bass could have used a bit more salt. The pork collar ($22), sourced from Wagon Wheel Ranch in nearby Mount Airy, hit all the right notes. A large cut of Berkshire pork (Wagon Wheel's website boasts that "until recently almost all Berkshire Pork was exported to Japan where it is a delicacy compared to Kobe Beef") was served atop smoked cheddar grits and Brussels sprouts.
It was refreshing that the Brussels sprouts were lightly sautéed instead of fried, like most places are doing right now, and the lusciousness of the pork acted as a great accompaniment to the sharp, cheesy grits—especially if you mop it all up with the vinegary mustard-cider sauce that was drizzled around the plate like I did.
The Elysian Fields lamb porterhouse ($26) was a bit of a disappointment. A bone-in cut of lamb the size of a filet mignon was served with a white bean puree and heirloom roasted carrots and was so small that it was hard to even cut the meat from around the bone. The meat itself was cooked well and had a bold flavor, but there just wasn't nearly enough of it. The puree also had a slightly pasty consistency, but the carrots were great in the way that pan roasted carrots can get that awesome caramelized thing going on.
Of the seafood dishes I tried on my visits, the pan roasted monkfish ($23) was the standout. Unlike the lamb, it was a generous portion of white fish served with ratte (a type of potato) salad, capers, and pistachio crumbles. The fish itself took on a sweet, buttery flavor that, when mixed with the salty pop of the capers, made for a good culinary yin-and-yang result; add in the acid from the red wine vinaigrette and it was a sure-fire triple threat of flavors.
For dessert, the Stayman Winesap apple ($9), roasted with oats and cider and served with a scoop of honey ice cream in a mini-cast iron skillet, didn't quite hit the mark—the apple wasn't cooked all the way through. But a side of pistachio ice cream (which typically comes with a chocolate tart that we were too full to go all-in on) made up for it and was another go-back-for-it winner.
As the weather gets warmer, I look forward to seeing what the kitchen can do with all of the exceptional ingredients now in season. Given some time to let the space feel more worn-in and with a couple more menus under their belt, Cask & Grain Kitchen could help redefine what dining near Canton Square can be.