Just about every community has its Chesapeake (1701 N. Charles St., 410-547-2760, thechesapeakebaltimore.com), a white-tablecloth place where Mom would order an Old-Fashioned and every plate came with a side of glistening buttered carrots and khaki-colored green beans. The Chesapeake Restaurant, which opened in 1933 on the corner of North Charles and East Lanvale streets, closed in the 1980s; in its heyday (before a 1974 fire), it occupied five grand townhouses and could seat 300. There's a chance that plenty of Baltimoreans with nostalgia for the place may never have eaten there, or if they did, might have memories clouded by modern sensibilities.
As the most anticipated restaurant opening in a long while, the Chesapeake doesn't disappoint. Using plenty of reclaimed materials, the owners-who started the Milk and Honey markets in both Philadelphia and nearby Mount Vernon-have shaped a carefully edited space out of the old, complementing a locally sourced menu that offers something for everyone, from seared scallops with edamame succotash to the "knuckle sandwich," a mix of crab legs and lobster claws.
The new Chesapeake has the history we crave, pairing it with the food and drink our contemporary palates demand. The result allows us to weave memories as prettily colorized as the magnified vintage postcards of the bay in one of the restaurant's dining rooms.
Take the crab cake ($21). It's a classic Baltimore dish, an imperative on many a local menu, most especially at a place called the Chesapeake. But here the filler is shrimp mousse, which powers up the fishiness, and instead of breadcrumbs, it's bound with cornflakes. The cake is served on a bed of beet greens and braised radishes and it's gluten-free. (I'm guessing that purists may sniff at this nouveau interpretation, but I found it refreshing without departing dramatically from the norm.)
And while lobster doesn't hail from the bay, the lobster tail, a special on a recent night ($36), was tender and sweet, most likely caught earlier in the day. A heap of lobster foam sat on the russet tail; dabs of pickled green tomato puree that tasted like applesauce decorated the plate.
We started the meal with oysters, a mix of white and fleshy Sweet Baby Jesus farmed in St. Mary's County, nestled within their pearlescent shells, and the smaller and brinier Chincoteagues. We also ordered a plate of fried whole smelts-yes, they still had their eyes and were coated with a crisp breading with a hint of tarragon, delightful to crunch on, bones and all, especially dipped in the house tartar sauce, dappled with bits of chopped pickles.
The beverage director, Brian Walsh, stopped at our table (after we'd ordered a bottle of decent wine, a good strategy for wooing new customers). He took his time to talk about the list, which features a handful of local wines along with some West Coast and international choices. Wines by the glass are organized based on mood: wines for the party, for the farm, for summer in the city, each category including reds and whites.
The shrimp and grits ($18) had a lovely smokiness, with fat-seared shrimp and grits that were not too creamy. A thick Berkshire pork chop ($33) had almost no fat but a juicy texture from brining and came with farro grain, fat kernels with a nutty flavor, and braised spring greens.
The menu is simple-with a handful of entrees, sandwiches, and starters-but only tells half the story. The evening's specials, like the lobster or the pan-seared rockfish with English peas and blue oyster mushrooms, are described in great detail by the waitstaff. There are also specials each night of the week: Tuesday is "buck-a-shuck" with $1 oysters and $2 Natty Bohs; Wednesday is fish and chips; and on Fridays and Saturdays you can have prime rib for two, $45. (The prices come in all sizes: City Paper calendar editor Brandon Weigel poked fun at Chesapeake in a recent blog post, naming its $21 Manhattan, up, with pricy WhistlePig rye "the most overpriced Manhattan in Baltimore"-a jab the joint clearly took in stride, based on the chef's choice of props for the photo seen here).
I immediately decided to return on a Monday night for the fried chicken. The Chesapeake's chef, Jordan Miller, ran the famed Roost in Philadelphia (also owned by the Milk and Honey folks), and he knows his hens. The $18 plate had three pieces coated in thick, crisped batter encasing succulent meat with zero grease, thanks to the long process, which involves brining the chicken overnight. There were also small ramekins: a sharp hot sauce for dipping, and honey for the fat buttermilk biscuit.
The famous dessert here is the snowball ($9), which has little resemblance to either the locally favored chopped/shaved ice delicacy or the Hostess cake of old-for one thing, it has a rectangular prism shape-though it more closely resembles the latter. The dense white cake is layered with thick chocolate ganache and covered with crisp, fresh-toasted coconut, the plate dressed in dabs of banana cream and a scoop of rich chocolate sorbet.
The Chesapeake now has 130 seats for dining-many of them semi-circular booths upholstered in soft caramel-colored leather; high-top banquettes with black leather chairs face the bar. The marble bar is banked by a wall of glistening white subway tile. Chalkboards announce the specials and the oysters of the day. There's another room, smaller and darker, away from the buzz, but I haven't yet been willing to leave the main room, with its metal beams and spare filament lights, its large windows that look out onto Charles and Lanvale streets.
When it opened, the chef catered to those desperate for the Chesapeake of yore with nightly prix fixe specials like flounder roulade with a Caesar and a classic cocktail or crab imperial, derived from old Chesapeake menus. The specials recently ended, and for my money, the modern menu any day of the week is just fine.
The Chesapeake is open Monday through Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m, and Sunday 11-10 p.m