The Food Market
1017 W. 36th St.,  366-0606, thefoodmarketbaltimore.com
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Of all the noisy Baltimore restaurants I've been to-and there seems to have been a slew of them recently-the Food Market () had to be the loudest. The Hampden restaurant's noise level didn't appear to be due to excessively loud music (if there was any music at all, I couldn't detect it). It wasn't a particularly shouty crowd. There was just too little in this former grocery store to absorb the noise and lots of people there contributing to it. I'm 100 percent for a bustling, busy, lively dining room. But here, you couldn't hear your dining companions. You couldn't hear your server. You couldn't even hear your food-which was a shame because otherwise, I really, really liked Hampden Food Market.
But all of that is in the past tense because, as of last Thursday, acoustic tiles have been installed to dampen the volumes. Our server, whose inner-arm tattoo coincidentally read fff (fortississimo, or very loud), told us about this planned development. At least I think that's what he told us.
What's left once sound is taken out of the picture is a snazzy, detail-oriented, playful fizz of a place, dedicated to very fine food and sensible drink. Rare is a short wine list so international and so affordable. On the evening we went, the least expensive bottle, a Bonarda from Argentina, cost $29/bottle ($8/glass); the most expensive at $48/bottle ($12/glass) was Ca' Montanari, a dry, slightly fizzy lambrusco and a brilliant choice for summer dining. The five drafts, including Flying Dog In-Heat Wheat and Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout cover local, seasonal, and varying styles just right. That you can order cans of Natty Boh and Sixpoint Sweet Action, as well as bottles of Yuengling and Duvel, speaks to broad sensibilities. There's also a long list of cleverly named and concocted martinis and cocktails, if that's your poison. (Fancy a Sassy Pants or a Gin Na Say Pa? I thought so.)
Executive chef Chad Gauss has also done a fine job of mixing high and low concepts and a plethora of portion sizes that really do live up to their descriptions. "Little" offerings include the aptly named hot nuts ($5)-burn-your-fingers temperature walnuts, cashews, and almonds, sizzling from their quick dip in duck fat and savory-sweet with brown sugar, sea salt, and rosemary-and the breaded and flash-fried dill slices, drizzled with hot sauce, known as buffalo pickles ($6). A refreshingly simple throwback iceberg wedge salad ($6, one of three salads in the "Small" section) is sprinkled with bleu cheese and bacon and comes with a wobbly soft-boiled egg, peeled and left whole so the diner can decide just when to puncture the white to drain the yolk. "In Between" means sandwich, and even if you think you can't eat yet another high-end, gourmet burger, the Pat LaFrieda burger ($14), with its thick coat of diced bacon, will make you ready to re-embrace the trend. "Big" plates equal entrees and yielded the only disappointment of the evening: a small, dry fillet of Florida black grouper ($25).
Aside from that, Gauss' menu shines, particularly in its embrace of ethnic and regional favorites like edamame, Amish soft pretzels, and arancini, described as risotto-crusted mozzarella. So many restaurants that make this kind of stretch just feel scattered or like they're trying to please too many palates at once with no real focus, but Gauss ties it all together with seasonal and local ingredients. He also clearly realizes that tacos and Israeli couscous are now as much a part of the American bistro landscape as steak frites and crab cakes, both of which are on the menu.
A welcome playfulness runs through the menu as well. S.O.S ($12) turns out not to be creamed chipped beef on toast (a.k.a. shit on a shingle) but a small dish of creamy shrimp and cheddar-spiked grits ($12). Lean and meaty lil' lamb porterhouses ($14) turn lollipop lamb chops on their ear with a burst of hot spice that includes "espresso essence."
In fact, the kitchen shines most brightly when it comes to meat, particularly lamb. Like the small porterhouses, the lamb meatabally's kabob ($17) is graced with accompaniments like mint salsa verde and Israeli couscous that feel perfect for hot weather. (I'm also happy to see chow-chow, another element of the dish, ride the coattails of the homemade pickle popularity wave.) A generous serving of two puffy, fried pork schnitzels ($18) is similarly enhanced by a corn pudding that you might mistake for feather-light mashed potatoes if you aren't careful. Perhaps most impressive are the meltingly good Duroc pork ribs ($10), a special that should become a regular offering, if only for the magnificent Wendi's grilled cabbage, slightly charred and sweet as onions.
The Food Market offers fresh renditions on old dessert standbys, like toffee-studded bread pudding ($7) and cheesecake, whipped and stuffed into a jar ($7), but the hands-down favorite dessert of the evening was a dinner-sized plate of fresh berries, served with a frothy zabaglione ($7)-simple and quite lovely.
Reservations would seem to be a must right now, as the buzz of the restaurant grows. On a Friday night, every space at the bar was taken by 7 P.M., and by the time we left, closer to 10 P.M., the communal table that fronts the open kitchen was packed as well. In no way did this seem to faze the servers, who were casual but professional and eager to please throughout the evening. Their care and the nuanced food make you want to return, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what Gauss does when the bitter greens, root vegetables, and hearty stews of cooler weather begin to push tomatoes and crab cakes off the menu and when the new acoustic tiles take their full effect.
The Food Market is open for dinner Seven days and brunch Fri - Sun.