I've been to Maryland House at Brennan's before. I know how to find it; I know which unmarked door along Maryland Avenue one of the main arteries that pumps fabulousness through the Central West End nightscape opens upon a steep wooden staircase that leads to the second-floor space above Brennan's Wine, Food and Tobacco shop. I can even tell you which of the many more unmarked doors in that converted apartment is for the bathroom.
Still, every time I go to Maryland House, I feel not cool enough to be there. Way not cool enough to be there.
Maryland House is it right now. It is the poo, the epicenter of this-minute stylishness almost unbearably so. Its bar, fashioned out of green glass bottles stacked upon and glued to one another by the hundreds, then topped by handsome planks of light-colored, glossy wood, manages a design feat so rococo-crazy it could make you blush. Behind that bar hangs a large swath of canvas painted in a slapdash, Hopper-meets-Basquiat style. As with most high-pop art, I'm not really sure what it means. A little half-room overlooking the street that contains only a flat-screen TV and a mod loveseat has been dubbed by Maryland House management the "miniature movie theater." They're in the process of building a collection of 200 DVDs that patrons will be able to view at their choosing. Another little room toward the back houses a vintage sneaker and T-shirt shop.
If I were one of those metrosexual men who look like they haven't eaten or washed their hair in days (the kind who wear vintage T's and kicks), I think I'd feel more at home. Or if I were That Guy in the French Blue Button-Down Texting His Hook-Up, or The Size-Negative-Two Chick Teetering on a Pair of Open-Toed Steve Maddens. As it is, whenever I head up the stairs I find myself regretting whatever sartorial choices I've made that evening and feeling like I'm stuck in my own little movie montage, like in The Devil Wears Prada where Anne Hathaway's character realizes just how common she looks compared to her mag-editing cohorts.
So why do I keep returning?
From the looks of the place, not too many Maryland House regulars even know the place operates as a restaurant. (Well, maybe they do but they need to maintain those size-neg-two and/or metrosexually emaciated physiques.) But that's somewhat understanding; the edibles have been a long time coming.
Before there was a Maryland House, there was just Brennan's, which had been around for a couple of years, and its speakeasy-like lounge in the basement. This past fall Brennan's did food for a while small-plates stuff, mostly cold preparations, since there wasn't a full-fledged kitchen on the premises. The menu, titled "Snack @ Brennan's," changed from day to day. Yet despite the modest moniker, what a feast it was: scallop ceviche plated on a cream of Jerusalem artichokes; tuna tartare with red cabbage and daikon radish; chicken liver crostini dressed with hearts of palm and drizzled in a balsamic reduction; a platter of crisp and slender asparagus spears, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Knowing their lack-of-kitchen's inherent constraints, owner Kevin Brennan and company did the next best thing to making great food; they sourced great food, and let the ingredients stand up for themselves. A communal banquet table, set up smack-dab in the middle of Brennan's slender storefront, made do as the dining area.
There was something about that old set-up that felt very collegiate, like that friend from your undergraduate years who'd figured out how to cook and invited you to his off-campus apartment for a feast the likes of which your nineteen-year-old, cafeteria-relegated self had never seen. This was food for luxuriating in, ordering another plate and another and then just one more. On my visits there in the fall, we wore banged-up jeans and frumpy sweaters and felt right at home.
Now in the upstairs Maryland House, I wouldn't be caught dead in such an outfit. But the food, happily, traffics in the old vein: luxurious yet cozy, prima donna-sounding but comfortable.
The menu's still a small-plates affair, printed out daily. A few regular items remain from the old Brennan's menu and now stick from night to night. Scallop ceviche has morphed into sea scallop risotto; tuna tartare is now a seared tuna steak drenched in a tomato-olive oil emulsion and sided with a light and fresh salsa verde. The asparagus plate persists, as have the cold platters of cheeses, Italian meats and pâtés.
At its best, the food at Maryland House echoes the décor: so bombastically delicious, your taste buds don't quite know what to do with themselves. A plate of smoked salmon (thinly sliced, unctuous and fresh) is presented with the traditional accompaniments of red onion, capers and sour cream (the last is too heavy for the slender salmon slices; a dollop of crème fraîche would've been better), then given a new dimension by a spoonful of preserved lemons like a sweet-and-sour chutney. Tuna carpaccio features more of those lemons. Yes, it's redundant given the salmon. But it's really a case of not-too-much of a good thing; I'll take 'em both. The tuna slices are translucent, almost gelatinous like a fleshy aspic. This time the lemons are undercut by soft and simple carrots.
And still there's more seafood to delight in: the crudo of freshwater fish (usually trout), which hums on the fork alongside fresh arugula, red onions and marinated white anchovies. "Crudo" is Italian for raw; the fish is steeped in citrus juices, like ceviche. The milder flavor of the trout and the salty sting of the anchovies meld beautifully in a yin-and-yang, Odd Couple sort of way.
Only about four items are listed on the menu as "cooked." That indication, and their prices (into the high teens), makes it seem as though they'd be entrée-sized. Sadly, that's not the case. Seared tuna is about the size of a candy bar, sliced into bite-size pieces and treated to a ridiculously mild salsa verde. But there's a robust, peppery crust at work that supplies the necessary oomph. A pan-roasted beef tenderloin medallion, all wee four ounces of it, makes for a ravishing if stingily rationed portion of red-meat lustiness, plated above the sweetest of starches, whipped parsnips, and a multidimensional blueberry glaze.
Just one Maryland House dish disappointed me: the sea scallop risotto. The scallops were tall, marshmallowy, nearly perfect; the risotto was hard, loose, watery a borderline disaster. Maybe that owes to limitations of the kitchen.
For that matter, the bar is staffed on the light side as well usually just one bartender and an occasional bar-back, with Brennan often filling in as a busser and runner. That wouldn't be a problem if the "International Drink Menu" weren't so temptingly complex. Who the heck comes up with drinks like the Nite Fox (sangria, Campari, sloe gin and oranges), the Shoe Whore (strawberry brandy, Frangelico, heavy cream, basil) and the Perfect Fit (blood oranges, Mandarin vodka, Grand Marnier) and pulls them off so effortlessly? Probably the same people who can decorate a bathroom with bundled twigs and make it look right-on and cool, instead of just a lame copycatting of something out of House Beautiful.
I'll weather any onslaught to my self-esteem in order to indulge in the foods Maryland House offers. Maybe I'll even go there without worrying about what I'm wearing. Looks matter a lot at Maryland House, but for some of us, taste will always matter more.