32 Market Place,  682-8007, kettle-hill.com
More at weekly.citypaper.com
ON AN EARLY SUMMER evening, Power Plant Live is awash in lights, heat, and humans. Sailors mingle with civilians, puddles pool under cocktail glasses slick with condensation, and M83’s ubiquitous “Midnight City” pours out through the open doors of Kettle Hill, the newest addition to Power Plant Live!
Located in the former Babalu Grill space, Kettle Hill is inspired by that renowned gourmand, President Teddy Roosevelt, and includes former Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey as one of its investors. And, indeed, nods to each pop up throughout the restaurant, from the Rough Rider-styled chambray shirts of the servers to the vintage sports matches broadcast in black and white on corner televisions. The generously deep leather booths that fill the dining area between the bar and the open kitchen station, the paper-covered tables bearing the KH stamp, and open doors to the patio that bring the warmth and noise of the plaza inside all contribute to a space that feels clean without being cold, and slightly traditional and rustic without being at all old-fashioned. It strikes the right chord between casual and steakhouse, and I can see the restaurant’s appeal to a visitor staying downtown who’s looking for a meal at an establishment that’s not a chain, though, at times, Kettle Hill may seem like one.
On paper, Kettle Hill wears all the trappings of the current farm-to-table movement: Steaks (both beef and bison), pork, and even ice cream have local pedigrees (Roseda Farm, Gunpowder Farm, Truck Patch Farm and Taharka Brothers, respectively). The bar menu offers craft beers and emphasizes signature and classic cocktails using small regional producers like Maryland’s Sloop Betty Vodka and Bluecoat Gin, made in Philadelphia. There is house-made charcuterie and a daily pickle jar. And yet, the food can feel oddly inauthentic, more like a corporate take on local than a genuine effort.
Some of this is due to picky, little things, like the inconsistency of a menu item for “Head-on Gulf Shrimp, Andouille and Grits” that lists “local shrimp” among the ingredients, or the appearance of an heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad, summer corn and tomato croquettes, and crème caramel with roasted peaches before the summer produce season has really kicked into gear. But mostly it comes down to flavor and balance, which was inconsistent the night we dined, beginning with a Maryland crab soup ($6) brimming with string beans and corn and a pronounced (and to me, unwelcome) sweetness of which we were forewarned. Or a mild and under-seasoned country bacon and bourbon pate ($12) accompanied by a radish salad whose wilted micro-greens should have never left the kitchen. Both renditions seemed more like a pale imitation of what the dish could be, rather than a well-executed version of the dish itself.
On the flip side, Chesapeake crab gazpacho ($5), the other soup on the night’s menu, hit the right notes of freshness, spice, and cool crunch, and a pastrami smoked salmon ($15) garnished with avocado, smoked tomatoes, and the classic egg, capers, and onions could make a savory light meal (albeit a small one).
Along with charcuterie, raw bar offerings, and salads, Kettle Hill offers small plates—which really are substantial enough to share as advertised—steaks, and what the restaurant calls “center plates” (what most folks would think of as entrees). Both the small and center plates attempt to bridge the divide between diners who want tavern-style food (see a soupy applewood-smoked bacon cheddar dip served with bread and apples ($10), fried green tomatoes and pulled pork stack, and several varieties of burgers) and something a little more formal (bluefin tuna tartar, lamb chops au poivre, and jumbo lump Chesapeake crabcakes).
Burgers are popular here, and if Kettle Hill’s angus beef burger is as good as its farm lamb burger ($15), the many orders for burgers spotted around the dining room make sense. The 9-ounce lamb burger sports a smear of peppadew pepper-mint pesto that plays nicely with the hefty crumble of Firefly Farms goat cheese that covers the burger. And the homemade pickles—both sweet and sour—are a welcome addition, even if you take them off the sandwich to savor their individual flavors.
The kitchen also proves it can turn out respectable seafood dishes, like the shrimp, Andouille, and grits ($26) dish, whose shrimp proved sweet and satisfying, regardless of their origins (the grits are also turned out perfectly), and a fillet of Maryland rockfish in a not-particularly spicy Bouillabaisse broth ($25).
Throughout the evening, every restaurant staff person encountered—from the women at the hostess station to the bus staff to servers—seemed intent on making sure patrons were satisfied. This included turning down the music as requested when our server couldn’t hear us over Passion Pit, and bringing a fresh hot cone of fries without excuses and with apologies when the ones that arrived with the burger were cold.
Given its location near the harbor, Kettle Hill has to please a wide swath of customers to stay in business, and it has the potential to do this. But with the amount of already established farm-to-table restaurants in town, it’s going to have to up its game to draw in the city’s inhabitants, rather than just its visitors.
Kettle Hill is open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday; brunch and dinner on Sunday.