Worth a Trip: Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen
by brian freedman
For many people, living a dream involves celebrities and idols, or experiencing something overtly glamorous, like singing “The Way We Were” onstage with Barbra Streisand, playing 18 holes against Masters winner Bubba Watson, or walking the Fall runway for Ralph Lauren. Earlier this summer, during a visit with chef Spike Gjerde at Baltimore’s game-changing Woodberry Kitchen, I had the chance to step into my own dream—that is, a meat-loving food writer’s dream.
Walking into the space where Gjerde and his team cure and age homemade sausages and ham for this award-winning restaurant, I breathed in the heady air and realized that, finally, I was completely surrounded by pork and beef. It was tantamount to a carnivore’s heaven.
For its earnest, unfussy, and honest treatment of meats and produce, not to mention the restaurant’s welcome and omnipresent air of casual elegance—on any busy evening, not a soul in sight can be found playing the see-and-be-seen game so popularized in Washington—Woodberry Kitchen has become a darling in local foodie circles, an important player in this city’s ever-shifting collection of must-visit restaurants.
That’s right: Required DC-foodie dining. In Baltimore. Without an ounce of pretense or pressure. “I don’t take for granted a second of what’s happened at Woodberry,” Gjerde tells me as we sit outside the restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Amy. Looking around the eatery’s outdoor patio, with its weathered tables and brick arches framing the massive windows of the old, repurposed building—the space was once a mill—Gjerde pauses thoughtfully before adding: “It still confounds me a little bit as I wonder what nerve we hit that got us to where we are.”
Though the chef seemingly shies away from naming the secrets to his success, it’s clear that much of the restaurant’s buzzworthiness has to do with Gjerde’s insistence on sticking to the culinary principle that underpins Woodberry: that local, carefully sourced products not only taste better, but they can also help contribute to a healthier local economy. “The idea of ‘farm to table,’ which is a phrase that has become kind of cliché in some respects,” is shown the respect here that it too often isn’t anymore, Gjerde explains. “At Woodberry, we hope to deliver on some of those ideas.” The restaurant’s bar offerings highlight local and housemade spirits as well as cocktails made with fresh herbs. Standouts include honeyed rye from Harford County used in the Old Flame, and Woodberry’s own rhubarb liquor, a main ingredient in the Garden Party sparkling punch. Behind the bar, glass Ball jars of housemade pickles and other homespun treats line the walls. And inside the dining rooms that make up the former industrial space, servers dressed in plaid shirts and dark denim welcome guests with genuine smiles and cheery dispositions.
“Ultimately, this is a restaurant that’s about relationships,” Gjerde says. “The relationships with our growers, and the amazing relationship we have with this incredible team that has grown up around it.” From the look of things, the relationship Woodberry has developed with its patrons is thriving, too. Approaching five years in, the restaurant is still packed with neighborhood regulars and out-of-towners from DC and beyond; reservations are a must and should be secured well in advance for the best dining time slots.
The food itself is some of the most outstanding, flat-out delicious cuisine I’ve tasted. Those homemade sausages and other meats, for example, are simply and comfortingly presented on a butcher’s board— the bresaola, piquant and sweet, and showcasing the pasture-raised beef it’s made from. Pancetta melts over your tongue without much chewing. Duroc salami is to the typical cold cut as J.S. Bach is to Justin Bieber.
This isn’t fancy food—no Baroque preparations here—just simple but smart. And the success of so many of Gjerde’s dishes is predicated on allowing the pedigree of the individual ingredients to shine. Chesapeake rockfish is a meaty wonder, especially against the startlingly bright character of the Anson Mills rice (not local, but as artisanal as it gets, sourced directly from the Columbia, South Carolina, mill). Pork shoulder—Woodberry receives two whole pigs and a steer every week, and they butcher the whole animals—wrapped around homemade sausage and braised in a pork gravy with sweet local tomatoes and onions, takes on a bit of the smoke of the wood-burning oven that anchors the open kitchen. Even a side of potatoes is transformed into something the tuber rarely is: exciting. Here they are slowly roasted and then anointed with a homemade “scaper” aioli. (Gjerde couldn’t find any decent local capers, but discovered that salt-curing garlic scapes resulted in something similar, hence “scapers.” They are a revelation.)
The Gjerdes have appeared on the Today show, and the restaurant has been lauded in magazines and on food-oriented websites across the country. They are, without a doubt, a couple on the rise. Turns out that their own special recipe—food grounded in a thoughtful, carefully considered philosophy, prepared with care, and served in a comfortable space that seemingly shuns the type of self-promotional flash typical of celebrity-chef dens—is what Baltimoreans and, indeed, Washingtonians have wanted all along. But ask them to explain it, and what you’ll get are answers as heartfelt, warm, and simple as this food. “We wanted to cook the way we ate at home,” Amy Gjerde says over dinner at the restaurant. “The food that I grew up on; the baking my mom did.”
With that, we order a raw rhubarb tart, I finish off the rest of my unexpectedly delicious Maryland Syrah, and we all enjoy the warmth of an early-summer Baltimore night. It is one of the most comforting and soulful dining experiences I’ve had in a very long time.
photography by greg powers; dusan vuksanovic (sign)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.