For some inexplicable reason, Baltimore seems infinitely removed from D.C. I can’t pin down why it feels that way, since it’s merely an hour’s drive up the parkway. It’s so local, and yet couldn’t be more different. Combining a blue collar backbone with an edgy quirkiness, it’s the opposite of D.C.’s white collar workforce and button up façade, though the latter is starting to be rubbed away. Though I’ve been to B’more several times for day trips, I’d never spent a night there. But in early December, Charm City was the perfect destination for an overnight getaway. I was looking for both a break from the holiday madness and the chance to do some Christmas shopping, while allowing myself to indulge in a tasting tour of the city’s best restaurants and food shops.
Where to Stay
Situated in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood, not too far up from the Inner Harbor, the Ivy Hotel is rich with charm and hospitality. The original building was constructed in the late 1800s, though it was added onto in both the ensuing centuries, creating a sense of modern antiquity. Each of the 18 rooms is unique, but they all sport massive four-poster beds decked out with plenty of pillows, as well as individually hand decorated “bar-moires” filled with snacks and sips, including regionally produced items such as McCutcheon’s apple cider, Heavy Seas beer and Route 11 potato chips. In keeping with the hotel’s philosophy, these are all complimentary, as are a bevy of other amenities, such as a glass of champagne when you arrive, valet parking, afternoon tea, the DIY cocktail bar on the main floor, and a private car service. Additionally, no tipping is allowed. In the morning, breakfast and the day’s papers (both included at no extra cost) can be enjoyed in-room or at your choice of tables downstairs. If you’re in the mood for a sweet start, the lemon soufflé pancakes – delicate discs hiding a zesty undercurrent with optional warm maple syrup and blueberry compote – are a wise decision. For a savory beginning, you would be well served by ordering the eggs Benedict with truffled Hollandaise.
What to Eat
The two most well-known chefs in Baltimore both own a series of highly regarded restaurants, which form the foundation of the city’s ascendant dining scene. The first is James Beard Award winner Spike Gjerde, who earned national recognition for the mid-Atlantic fare forged with local ingredients he serves at Woodberry Kitchen. His second effort, Parts & Labor, is part restaurant, part butchery, and part boutique grocery (he also owns a pair of cafes, Artifact Coffee and Bird in Hand). To get a taste of the work being done in the back, begin with a charcuterie board featuring whatever has just finished curing. Salami with a rich undertone thanks to powdered maitake mushrooms, slender sheets of fat-veined coppa and Pennsylvania-style Lebanon bologna are all outstanding. At lunchtime, there are plenty of sausages and meaty sandwiches to be had, but hone in on the raw cheeseburger if it’s being offered that day. A patty of beef tartare arrives on a bun with all the traditional accompaniments, so the flavors taste familiar, but the texture and temperature confound you – in a very good way.
Charm City’s other leading culinary figure is chef Cindy Wolf, who owns a number of enterprises with her ex-husband Tony Foreman, including the straight-out-of-Paris Petit Louis Bistro and the Argentinian accented Bar Vasquez. Her flagship, Charleston, is perched on a primo corner overlooking the Inner Harbor. Diners choose a three to six-course tasting menu, which should always include the smooth, almost frothy, lobster soup with rich chunks of butter-poached meat and dots of Madras curry oil that add an otherworldly quality. Feathery fritters reveal themselves to be cornmeal battered fried oysters with a dot of lemon-cayenne mayo. Small, but intensely flavorful, Peconic Bay scallops – sweet, briny and buttery – sit on a mash of cauliflower accented with a lemony brown butter and tiny capers. This restaurant alone is worth the drive to Baltimore.
For a late night treat, head to the Charmery, an idiosyncratic ice cream parlor serving wildly imaginative flavors. When I stopped by, there was tart lemon with bits of sweet fig and crunchy pearls of black sesame, butterscotch that was more booze than Brach’s hard candy, and cayenne-laced peanut butter ice cream shot through with bits of peanut brittle.
Where to Shop
Walking down 36th Street in the Hampden neighborhood, I found a bounty of boutiques and antiques. For those on the prowl for vintage furniture, fashions from eras past, eccentric knickknacks, and oddball ephemera, try this trio: Milk & Ice Vintage, Whatnots, and the Silver Fox. For modern day gifts, the two-level Trohv is a treat. From gourmand gifts and unique home décor to delightfully nonconformist greeting cards and holiday decorations, it had something for almost everyone on my Christmas list.
My wildest stop and shop was at Sideshow inside the American Visionary Art Museum, a tripped out collection of daring and delightful outsider art. If you want to skip the exhibits, you can access the gift shop for free. Be warned: you can spend hours browsing. Packed floor to ceiling with a colorful array of tchotchkes, artworks, pop culture detritus, weird candy, cards, books, and so much more (Giant gummy in the shape of the Flaming Lips’ lead singer Wayne Coyne? Check!), it is a perfect place to stock up on stocking stuffers.
For a few food-focused gifts (and some goodies for me), I made a visit to Belvedere Square, an indoor market in the northern reaches of the city. There I was happy to discover Pure Chocolate by Jinji, which makes chocolate enrobed figs hiding a rich peanut butter ganache core (limit three per person), chocolate covered dates stuffed with honey, cacao nibs, and sea salt, and dark chocolate truffles enriched with local hops. I left town on a sugar high, already looking forward to going back.