We are on Biddle Street, in the curved drive of the new Ivy Hotel, waiting for valet parking to return our car after a meal at Magdalena (205 E. Biddle St.,  514-0303, theivybaltimore.com/dining/magdalena/), the high-end boutique hotel's equally high-end restaurant.
Another couple emerges from the restaurant into the mild night: the woman in a red sweater, well-coiffed, and of a certain age; the man, in a dark overcoat and baseball cap. He's her brother visiting from New York, the woman tells my husband and me. The brother smiles and gives a wan protest as his sister continues. "He doesn't like the Prime Rib," she says. "And I don't like Charleston or Cinghiale—too snooty." So here they are for her second visit to Magdalena in 10 days, which speaks volumes about her bank account as much as her enthusiasm. She raves about the kind service and the country apple cake that she says emerges from the kitchen under a dome of smoke, something I wish I could have witnessed. Magdalena is her new favorite restaurant, she pronounces, adding, "There's no place like it in Baltimore."
She may be right. The Ivy, an 18-room boutique hotel developed by Eddie Brown, CEO Brown Capital Management, and Martin Azola, CEO Azola Cos. in the 1889 building that was formerly the Inn at Government House, opened in June. Magdalena, located on the lower level of the building, is the only part of the hotel accessible to non-hotel guests. And while Baltimore has a few restaurants that rival Magdalena's prices (entrees run between roughly $34 and $50; appetizers start at $19), each has their own particular focus (think Charleston's Low-Country regional, Aggio's Italian, or even the Prime Rib's classic steakhouse vibe). Magdalena bills itself as a "fine-dining bistro" and "cross-cultural" with a dash of local and seasonal, which translates on the plate as a little bit of everything from everywhere: lamb chops from Colorado, Painted Hills beef from Oregon, Benton's bacon out of Tennessee, "local" crab. This pastiche is also reflected in the dining areas: five rooms with themes that range from wine cellar to garden room to the bar, all neutral tans and golds with small tables and several booths.
I'll say upfront that I liked the food I had at Magdalena, but I didn't love it. And at more than $200 for two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, and three drinks, I really wanted the entire experience to be extraordinary.
That said, a few things were.
The front of the house folks and our server could not have been more gracious. The host and manager greeted us warmly, and my coat disappeared from my shoulders and was hung in the closet as if by magic. Our server answered every question patiently and enthusiastically and gave us ample time (but not too much) to consider the menu. I noted staff bringing extra condiments to one table, regularly filling wine glasses at another. Everyone said thank you.
Magdalena also offers an abundance of small details that distinguish a meal here from an everyday night out. On each table, a fresh orchid blossom floats in glass. The bars uses Luxardo maraschino cherries in an excellent Old Fashioned-like cocktail called the Bookie ($18). And the amuse bouche—always a treat—is a lovely demitasse of bisque-colored pumpkin soup served with half a Scotch egg. The kicker is that this version uses chorizo and a quail egg. Fresh rolls, this evening flavored with five-spice powder and sesame, arrive warm with an almond-shaped serving of butter that looks, in its matte black dish, like it could double for fancy powder room soap, but tastes only of sweet cream and a hint of soy, to complement the bread.
Magdalena offers a fairly deep and varied wine list that's reflected in the by-the-glass offerings (Oudinot Champagne Brut, Epernay NV at $18/glass, Soter Vineyards North Valley Rosé from the Willamette Valley at $13/glass), two beers on tap (one local and one import), a small cocktail menu, and Stumptown coffee.
So to be sure, there are good things going on at Magdalena. But when I try to put my finger on what doesn't quite work for me I keep coming back to food that feels overly complicated. Sometimes more ingredients can be intellectual and a challenge to the senses. And sometimes it just feels like too much jewelry.
Take, for instance, the salad of cured fluke and local crab ($21). It's a small, pretty plate, composed of tiny pale strips of cured fluke and small mounds of crabmeat camping out under radish slices. There are dabs of slow-burning black radish kimchi, which is delicious on its own but slightly overpowers the seafood. And then placed throughout the plate and glistening like small topazes are tiny dots of lemongrass jelly that are jarringly sweet. All of the individual ingredients are fresh and good quality, but the dish just doesn't hang together as a whole.
Another appetizer, the chorizo agnolotti ($20), fares better mainly because the two agnolotti, a Piemontese version of ravioli, are so appealingly plump and savory. They are served with nicely grilled octopus, pickled fennel, and a distracting, but small, puff of foam. I could have eaten several more as an entrée and been satisfied.
Entrees change regularly, and the night we dined six were on offer: rockfish, roast chicken, lamb chops, short rib ravioli, bronzini, and a vegetarian tart with pepper and eggplant. The bronzini fillet ($38) is served on a portion of ratatouille, which can often be a mess of muddied flavors, but here was close to perfectly-balanced, velvety, and with a pronounced richness. It was my favorite part of the dish, which also included a sprinkle of tiny, fried clams, dabs of bright green basil mayonnaise, and a garnish of broccoli rabe. In this dish, each component, save the ratatouille and the fish, seemed separate, rather than integrated. By contrast, the two lamb chops ($45), served with a small, juicy link of merguez and roasted potatoes tossed with red onion confit, feel less fussy.
Desserts included the apple cake (served with white oak smoked honey ice cream and bee pollen) which so bewitched my fellow diner, and a hot dark chocolate fondant, but I opted for classic in a pear tart tatin ($13) that came with cinnamon ice cream, a dot of chestnut honey on the plate's rim, and a decidedly un-classic butter crumble on top of the pie. Good, but not necessary.
Magdalena is offering a specific kind of contemporary, cosmopolitan dining experience for those who have the budget (or expense account) for this kind of meal. But it can also feel a little generic. And while Magdalena and The Ivy could definitely be a boon for midtown and for travelers who want to and can experience this level of detail, a tweak here or there in the kitchen to let the food match the ethos of the staff—focused, genuine, not fussy—would be welcome (and relatively easy to do). All the quality ingredients are there.
Magdalena is open Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m., Friday 5:30-10 p.m., and Saturday 5-10 p.m.