The Chesapeake Restaurant was a Baltimore institution. It was the kind of place that our parents and grandparents would go to on special occasions, to sup on lobster Thermidor and beef so tender you could “cut your steak with a fork…else tear up the check and walk out.” It opened in the 30s, expanded in the early 60s, then closed with a thud in 1989. Two and a half decades later, a new incarnation opened and promptly closed. I never ate in either version, being too young to care the first time around and wise enough to notice the general lack of enthusiasm the second time.
Rather than repeating history and allowing the building to remain empty for another 25 years, Helmand Karzai took over the space in 2014, renaming it Pen & Quill after the cocktail lounge in the original Chesapeake restaurant. If the name Karzai seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Helmand’s uncle Hamid was the President of Afghanistan for almost a decade. Helmand’s father, local restaurateur Qayum, also gave politics a try. While he did not succeed his younger brother in office, he did win the hearts and appetites of Baltimoreans with his popular restaurants The Helmand, Tapas Teatro, and b – A Bolton Hill Bistro.
Having grown up in restaurants, it seemed natural for Helmand to continue in the business. And he’s keeping things in the family. It was a no-brainer to hire Bella Kline as the executive chef at Pen & Quill. Not only was Kline the sister of his fiancée Naomi (now his wife and the restaurant’s bar manager) she also had some serious kitchen chops. Schooled in French technique by Jeff Smith of Baltimore’s late, lamented Chameleon Café, Bella was working at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle when she got the call; now her creative modern American cuisine is making tummies happy back in her hometown.
On a recent visit to Pen & Quill I was treated to a selection of dishes from Chef Kline’s menu. Things started off with impeccably fresh oysters on the half shell and a few items from the “Ploughman’s Platter,” including a plump house-made pork sausage with merguez-style spicing (cumin, coriander, cayenne). Next came pillowy burrata served with warm marinated mushrooms, fried sage, and slices of baguette; a tender beef tartare over a “broken” gribiche (an herb-forward cousin of a remoulade or tartar sauce, with hard-cooked eggs in place of raw); perfectly pan-seared scallops with banana ketchup; and fried polenta triangles with baba ganoush, artichoke hearts, and marinated feta over baby greens.
There was also a vegetarian twist on a Reuben sandwich, keeping the classic sauerkraut/Swiss cheese/Russian dressing/griddled rye but replacing the beef with smoked beets. It was probably my favorite dish of the evening, although the lamb pot pie with brussels sprouts and a sturdy pastry crust also ranked high. The first thing I noticed about the food was the unusual combinations of ingredients. The banana ketchup was a fun surprise (and not as sweet as one might imagine), as was that Reuben. But the backbone of strong French technique was also very apparent, particularly in a dish of French gnocchi (made with choux paste, most commonly used in eclairs or profiteroles) with a bright green soubise–a classic sauce flavored with onion. Petals of smoked Vidalia onion brought another, modern, level of flavor to the dish.
The menu’s not all fancy stuff, of course. The restaurant has a great bar, so it needs great bar food. There are the obligatory wings and a burger, but also steamed buns filled with things like fried oysters or pulled pork, and a gorgeous fried chicken sandwich just begging to be Instagrammed.
Pen & Quill
Minxeats Baltimore food blogger and Co-author of the new book, Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, plus Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore, and Baltimore Chef’s Table.
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