Skimming the menu at Woodberry Kitchen at dinner last month, my eyes locked onto the description of a North Carolina wreckfish entree. It came with spring garlic cream, asparagus, new red potatoes, and … crab imperial? There was a dish I hadn't thought about in years. Memories of my Maryland childhood shook awake at its mention. A caloric wonderland of a casserole, the Chesapeake region recipe typically includes lump crabmeat folded into mayonnaise and a cream sauce (or melted butter) with seasonings like dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce, sometimes sherry. It was served on its own in scalloped shells or as the capper for stuffed fish. I ordered it every chance I could as a kid, though its brazen richness started becoming unfashionable by the mid-1980s.
Yet here was crab imperial reincarnated at the hottest restaurant in Baltimore. Chef-owner Spike Gjerde transformed it into an embellishment, a last touch crowning a hunk of hard-seared fish. It was a modest splotch, golden with breadcrumbs. It enhanced each bite without announcing itself too loudly. Eating it reminded me I was home.
Woodberry Kitchen electrified the town when it opened in the rehabbed Clipper Mill industrial park in 2007. It was the most forward-thinking Baltimore restaurant in years; even Washingtonians journeyed to savor the finesse of Gjerde's food. In every mid-size American city last decade there seemed to be at least one chef who led a committed charge toward local sourcing and building lasting relationships with nearby farms. In Charm City it was Gjerde.
But something else has changed—deepened—in the restaurant's direction. After my recent dinner at Woodberry Kitchen I went back to my parents' house in the suburbs and rooted through a stack of papers on the desk in my old bedroom. It's not news that food critics swipe menus, but when a meal makes an impression I tend to save the pieces of paper that I shove folded and crumpled into my pockets. I found a menu from my previous meal at Woodberry, during Christmas vacation in 2009, when it was easier to book a same-week reservation at a decent time. I held the old menu up alongside the new one. The differences were obvious. From 2009, the list of dishes boasted global inspirations: fried rice with shitake mushrooms and egg, poutine, sizzling shrimp, pork loin with buckwheat crepes, roasted vegetables with polenta. In 2014, many more options directly reference Maryland heritage: oyster stew, chicken and biscuits, crab cakes with tartar sauce, rockfish in several preparations. There are nods to Baltimore's longstanding immigrant communities, including roasted kielbasa with potato salad and Greek salad.
Plenty of other current dishes—braised beef with grits, whole porgy roasted in the brick oven with tomato rice, five different flatbreads, pea shoots with pickled kohlrabi and tarragon yogurt—sound enticing purely on their own merits. But it is heartening to find Gjerde adapting recipes that engender such a clear sense of place. Other cooks around the country might follow suit. I'm not suggesting that creative minds tether themselves solely to community cookbooks and grandma's recipe box. I think, though, that the next step in the local-seasonal movement is for chefs not only to be champions of the land but also stewards of regional foodways.
Gjerde has shown his love for oysters from the Chesapeake Bay's estuaries since Woodberry's earliest days, but in the last seven years the selections have doubled. We slurped a few saline beauties fresh from Virginia waters and spooned up others simmered in an appropriately simple cream- and milk-based oyster stew. From their shells we scooped out several others that had been roasted and dressed with port cream and smoked ham, or with the house hot sauce, called Snake Oil, made from a local chile variety known as fish peppers. The peppers were once widely used by Maryland cooks but then nearly forgotten. Gjerde convinced some growers to plant heirloom varieties. Their impressive heat waded through Woodberry's "crab pot"—a double entendre for the crock holding hot dip that also refers to the name of the traps used to catch crabs. The dip's foundation was quark, similar to fromage blanc, and it was doused with sherry, a flavoring for dairy and crab dishes that stretches back to the country's founding.
On the lighter side, a thin piece of toast balanced lush hunks of rockfish surrounded by a halo of young chicories, dill, spring onions, and other greens. The meal's single disappointment was the Greek salad, an interpretation that included kohlrabi, pickled green tomatoes (mingled with their ripe red counterparts), slivers of fresh fish pepper, and ricotta subbing for feta. The herb dressing that should have united all these elements was so light that we probably should have sent the dish back: I'm convinced now it was missing altogether.
Mindful of their cholesterol (and worried about the lack of concern for my own), my folks urged that we order the chicken and biscuit, a disassembled, defatted version comprising a nicely browned breast angled over braised greens, roasted asparagus and carrots, pan jus, and a tawny biscuit that managed to be flaky and sturdy at once. A similar though sweeter biscuit appeared in the shortcake dessert under a snowbank of whipped cream showered with strawberries.
Woodberry's success has brought Gjerde, who grew up in Baltimore, a national platform, including a couple of James Beard award nominations. He's no upstart, though. He and his brother ran several restaurants—including Spike and Charlie's, Atlantic, and jr. (all defunct)—through the 1990s before he started Woodberry with his wife, Amy, and another partner no longer involved. The space's cultivated warmth (craggy brick walls, mottled cement floors, chopped wood stacked on shelves overlooking the lower part of the two-story room) and the staff's efficiency speak to Gjerde's years of experience in the business. And the fact that the more he thrives, the greater he glories in local tradition? That's just breadcrumbs on the imperial.