Wit and Wisdom
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Baltimore never fully moves away from its past or from the harbor. Take the view from Wit and Wisdom’s dining room: midnight-dark waves, the shadow of Federal Hill, and the red neon sign advertising the Rusty Scupper, at 30 one of the oldest remaining restaurants of the early Inner Harbor era. Oddly, and on the most basic level, Wit and Wisdom and the Rusty Scupper share the same basic formula for harbor-area success: water views, crab cakes, and the umbrella of corporate sponsorship. But the comparisons end there. One trip to Wit and Wisdom’s sleek and bustling dining room demonstrates in stark relief how much the Four Seasons Hotel and restaurateur Michael Mina believe Baltimore is willing to embrace (and pay for) a stylish space offering an upscale take on regional food.
Wit and Wisdom is certainly not the only new restaurant around depending on the success of this well-worn formula, but it certainly feels different. Decked out in soft grays and whites, the restaurant benefits from the warmth of a contemporary fireplace and the open kitchen prep area. Faux bois wall dividers separate the room into discrete dining areas and real wood logs are stacked high in floor-to-ceiling built-ins. There’s a constant buzz from a scrum of drinkers holding court in the lounge area and around the bar near the restaurant’s entrance.
Though the restaurant’s soft opening in November yielded mixed talk, with high expectations tempered by still green service and some sticker shock, two months later Wit and Wisdom feels more like a well-oiled machine than a lurching experiment. Napkins fall gracefully from the hands of a hostess into patrons’ laps; a small platoon of waitstaff approaches the table throughout the meal, pouring soup into bowls, toting trays for coffee service. When the couple next to you orders charcuterie, a rosy haunch is rolled to the table and sliced by hand after kitchen staff offers a short biography of the animal’s origins (West Virginia, acorn-fed, we thought we overheard). In Julie Dalton, Wit and Wisdom also lays claim to one of the city’s most pleasant and low-pressure but thoroughly knowledgeable sommeliers. Don’t be afraid to ask her advice.
Wit and Wisdom’s menu mostly hews to mid-Atlantic regionalism with nods to Baltimore and points further south. The crab cake shows up among the appetizers and items to share at the beginning of the menu. So does charcuterie, with house-made chow-chow; a sea full of fresh shellfish; and a lovely version of peanut soup ($12), classic in its execution if you overlook the crispy chicken skins mortared to the side of the bowl by a swath of house-made sorghum marshmallow. (The marshmallow is on the side so that diners can swirl it into the soup or leave it out at their discretion, our server explained. I liked it, but I was in the minority at our table. It is sweet.).
Still, few diners will confuse the restaurant’s ethereal puffs of salt cod fritters ($9) with Cohen’s famous coddies (there’s room for both versions in this city, I think). Nor will many diners have sentimental memories of the Carolina rice porridge with duck tongues ($9) their grandmother used to make. This unusual dish looks both humble and a little shocking, the tumble of slightly chewy tongues waiting to be bound together with egg and onion. That said, it all works in a savory, down-home way. The flavors here skew Asian, and given the generous portion, it is a dish worth sharing. Less adventurous eaters can still find satisfaction in more conventional offerings, such as a small plate of roasted eggplant draped across house-made smoked ricotta like nigiri sushi and dressed with a balsamic reduction and a sprinkle of black walnuts, a nod to a regional ingredient not used often these days.
Wit and Wisdom’s entrees are divided into four styles of preparation, each with their own sides, so that anyone who orders one of the three choices “griddled in a cast iron skillet” will get their rockfish or skate wing ($25) napped in brown butter, almonds, and capers accompanied by roasted cauliflower and a slick of cauliflower puree unfortunately reminiscent of vegetable shortening. It is one of the few missteps of the evening, though the rest of the dish shines.
Other preparations range from entrees braised and slow-cooked, such as a silky lamb shank ($28) crusted in garlic and crumbs accompanied by tart mustard greens, to the simplicity of a very lean smoke-roasted ribeye cooked rotisserie-style, available in portions for one or two ($38 for an 8-oz. portion for one). As is most often the case, none of these entrees is as inventive as some of the appetizers, yet the clear flavors and quality ingredients give them integrity. It’s not until you get to the Amish rabbit boudin and country-fried loin ($29) that the kitchen returns to getting its whimsy on. The dish is an homage to “tastes like chicken” done a la rabbit, with a “tender,” a white sausage, and an unadvertised leg confit all sharing the plate.
I wish Wit and Wisdom’s dessert choices were slightly more exciting, rather than the underwhelming list of gourmet brownie dressed up like a Baby Ruth bar, a squash spice cake, and a fruit crumble. The maple custard ($10) offers interesting textures—a salty crumble of shortbread, crunchy candied Marcona almonds, silky custard, and caramel sauce—but boy is it sweet, even for a dessert.
Still, the attention to detail throughout the meal is the real draw here. The excellent rye bread (made with Brewer’s Art Resurrection by Hamilton Bakery) comes with a small crock of butter (or olive oil if you prefer) with a tiny dusting of sea salt on its surface (the ribeye gets the same salt treatment). A pitcher of steamed, frothed milk accompanies coffee service. And servers wait until all diners are finished with their meals before clearing plates, a small but seemingly forgotten courtesy in many other dining rooms.
Make no mistake, a meal here will cost you, though the prices aren’t necessarily out of line for a restaurant located within the Four Seasons. And whether the restaurant’s primary clientele will be Baltimoreans or out-of-towners, or if the business can stick around for 30 years, I, for one, will enjoy watching.
Wit and Wisdom is open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, and dinner seven days. Tongues untied (except by egg and onion)