Restaurant Review: BAROAK Cookhouse & Taproom in Annapolis gives nod to Belgium
Nov 11, 2015 03:02PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
BAROAK Cookhouse & Taproom
Loews Annapolis Hotel, 126 West Street, Annapolis
410-295-3225 | baroakannapolis.com
Along with the Loews Annapolis Hotel’s complete facelift, we Annapolitans got BAROAK (pronounced Bar Oak) and Chef Teddy Folkman. As the brewpub tells us, the name of the new restaurant is a reference to Annapolis’ Baroque-style street grid, but also captures the essence of the cookhouse and taproom’s bar-centric food and the oak casks in which many of the Belgian and craft beers are aged. Chef Teddy, of Washington, D.C. restaurant pedigree and philanthropy, had searched for the right spot from Atlanta to New York, finally landing within the completely renovated Loews.
As one enters the cavernous warehouse-like room, the sheer space with very high ceilings is impressive and wide open. Upon approach from the hotel lobby, the whitewashed brick walls lend a feel of history. Also establishing a sense of grandeur is the immensely long bar of beautiful wood stretching the length of one wall, especially beckoning one for Happy Hour each evening from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, with drink and food specials each night. Most of the tables were four-tops with one large half-circle banquette filling the far corner. The outside covered terrace, running along the West Street side, is pleasant and prime territory if the weather is fine.
Let’s talk about the hustle, bustle, and acoustics inside. I learned some interesting restaurant trends from talking to “those who know.” The newest design direction in restaurants is to create a “bousculade” (jostling) atmosphere. It’s considered hip, happening, and causes one to think they are part of the action—which they are! For the party of diners which actually enjoys good conversation, some acoustic boards have been added in the high ceiling to trap and absorb some of the noise. Lovely focal points of the dining room are the living tall trees in large containers pinpointed with task lighting.
Hotel restaurants often have a tough go of it with unannounced large parties, a diverse mixture of hotel guests, all the while being open for three-meals-a-day hours. With a friendly flair, Chef Teddy intends to redefine that combo with this gastro pub. The artisan brews of the taproom are a draw and, in fact, Chef Teddy is considered a steward of Washington, D.C.’s craft beer scene. He co-founded D.C. Beer Week, focusing on regional brews. We saw many folks going for the “Flight” with one-of-a-kind craft beers. The beer list of more than 70 choices also exemplifies the chef’s love for Belgian brews. Simple, but smart, the wine list even includes the term “unoaked” for the California chardonnay. True to contemporary form, the bulbous non-footed glasses are the vessel of choice here.
What about the food? We moved on to discuss the casual taproom menu. Most dishes have an easy-going attitude with the categories of Intro’s, “S&S” (soups and salads), Sandwiches, Mussels, Flatbreads, and Pub Fare Entrees; there is also a Kids’ Menu. From a selection of four different flatbreads we decided to share the Naptown, which showcased Chesapeake ingredients. First, beyond all else, the thin crispy cracker-style crust was divine, a clear credit to the brick oven’s inferno temperature. Close to two ounces of lump crab, thin slices of roasted Brussel sprouts, cubes of pork lardon (re: meaty bacon), and abundant lemon ricotta cheese all rode the crust, nicely blanketed with a crab sauce.
Mussel dishes are front and center. If you can’t decide between the Bleu Mussel dish—pork belly, bleu cheese, leeks, spinach, preserved lemon, white wine—or the Cioppino Style with fennel, onions, pepper flakes, tomato saffron broth...try two smaller size starters for $10 each, under the “Intros” section of the menu. I went for the Bleu version, which is unique and must be recommended. The mussels are plump and moist; the chunks of bleu cheese are large and plentiful; and cubes of pork belly, rich with meat, all complement the thin rounds of preserved lemon slices—an interesting surprise to the flavor package. By the way, the mussels are served in a very deep dish, so I advise asking for a soup spoon to devour all of the broth that the two slices of toasted bread can’t reach. Along with the excellent fries (pommes frites), we had a good time sampling the “flight” of all five generous sauces: Horseradish Cream, Chipotle Mayonnaise, Dijonnaise, Curry Mayo, and Chili-Garlic Vinegar. (Hint: these were great fun to try on those crunchy fried potato fingers).
It’s refreshing to see a pub also focus on non-meat items. Chef Teddy is especially proud of his award-winning veggie burger—handmade from zucchini, mushrooms, walnuts, carrots, celery, and white and black beans.
My dining partner was intrigued by the unusual title of Smoked Carrot Steak under “Pub Fare.” Our server explained it as a huge smoked carrot accompanied by tomato raisins, roasted cauliflower, all surrounded by a coconut curry sauce. It still sounded like a foreign interpretation to us, but deserved investigation. A beautifully designed plate arrived with the carrot artfully cut on the bias and draped across the cauliflower florets. The tiny, deep reddish brown bits actually turned out to be low-and-slow cherry tomatoes, now masquerading as raisins in sweetness and color. The velvet curry sauce held a bit of spice heat. Apparently this dish has already garnered quite a following and is an excellent vegan offering. After we had eaten, we asked Chef Markus Donovan to come out and explain how they achieved such a large tender carrot which, served with a steak knife, seemed firm when pierced, but actually turned out to be nicely moist and soft. Mystery solved: he first described the carving of the carrot to make four flat sides. Then marinating, followed by dry-smoking for two hours. Finally the carrot is deep fried to give it the rich exterior color of a beef steak, while all of the steps come together to yield a very attractive vegan entree.
The Jerk Chicken, pleasant enough, is one of the most ordered dishes because it fits all palates. Don’t think big spice profile, but instead: a hint of jerk seasoning and a nicely cooked, moist half chicken, intact on the bone and with skin. The rice and beans side was mostly rice with a smattering of black beans—not what you would find in New Orleans. The fried plantain was excellent.
We enjoyed our conversation with Chef Marcus as he told us about all the effort he and Chef Teddy went to, testing and tweaking the menu dishes to their satisfaction. With humor, he gave us the behind the scenes view of the very laudable creativity of the captain of this ship and his mighty crew.
As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. She is a blogger, photographer and advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for 25 years.