The Food Market opened last year on the site of an actual food market in Hampden. Getting a reservation, even on a weeknight, proved difficult (that is unless you want to try your luck at a “community table” sitting up to a dozen people).
The dining room is modern, light, and stylish with big windows facing The Avenue in front and an open view of the kitchen at the rear framing the dining room. Several dozen tables (many sharing banquette seating against the side walls) are tightly packed, barely a foot apart in most cases. The noisy dining room isn’t the best place for a quiet or private conversation. The clientele seemed mostly 20 to 30-year-old straight couples.
Chad Gauss, former chef at the City Café who pushed that menu upscale and pricier, is the master of the kitchen. His intriguing menu is divided into four sections: “Little” (10 snacks including hot nuts, $5; popcorn, $3; soft pretzel fondue,$7; and tuna burger babies, $10); “Small” (12 appetizers including crispy lobster fingers, $17; pork carnitas tacos, $10; and pan roasted mussels, $12); “Big” (16 entrees, $17-40) and “In Between” (four sandwiches, $14-20). Menu options for vegans and vegetarians are limited.
Along with our two friends, Tom and JT, we started by sharing edamame (a bowl of soy beans whose salty ginger-dusted shells contained unimpressive and unseasoned soy beans, $6), spicy shrimp (eight garlicky, tasty, shrimp that earned our “Thumbs Up!,” $10) and fried calamari (a surprisingly small portion with a wonderfully light, not greasy coating, but served with two uninspired sauces, $12).
For our entrees, Marty chose rainbow trout ($25), John opted for blackened tuna ($25), Tom decided on Scottish salmon ($26) and JT went for a burger (sourced by high-end meat purveyor, Pat La Frieda, $14 – Check out http://www.lafrieda.com/SIGNATURE_BURGERS_s/1819.htm).
The mild trout was corn flour crusted and served with equally mild whipped cauliflower (Marty complained to the staff that it tasted as bland as it looked, and they nicely offered to blacken his fish; though impressed with the final result, he wished he had been offered that option when he ordered). John’s tuna was tasty and complemented by wasabi peas and toasted rice cakes (though it was hard to tell the tuna from the rice cakes!). Tom’s large piece of unseasoned salmon was grilled nicely and complemented by a memorable potato “flapjack,” grilled cabbage, and onions, all of which won his praise.
JT’s gourmet burger with fries earned his “Thumbs Up” (we tried some fries and liked them too).
For dessert, we shared a vanilla pot de crème with berries and chocolate bark ($7) and a hot fudge brownie ($8).
The crème resembled overly-firm boxed vanilla pudding and was decorated with a few pieces of strawberry (but no chocolate bark); the half unfinished ramekin that none of us wanted to eat illustrated how disappointing we found this dessert.
The brownie was much better (though was barely a half inch thick) and was topped with whipped cream and a crushed-pretzel-coated scoop of ice cream.
We were impressed with the Food Market’s excellent service; the entire team pulled together effectively and yet remained surprisingly unobtrusive. With our dinner, tax, and tip averaging more than $50 per person, we were disappointed that the food was no where as consistently excellent as the service. We has mixed feelings about our pretty pricey dinners, we felt that the tables were claustrophobically close (as Gauss had introduced at the City Cafe…), the chairs were less than comfortable. We were also unimpressed by The Food Market having only one single-occupancy restroom for men and one for women (We noted people waiting to use these facilities) All in all, our experience left us less than eager to return and genuinely wondering why all the hub bub about this restaurant.
Yet, when we left at 9:45pm on a Thursday evening, the Food Market’s dining room was bustling and three-quarters full, while other restaurants on The Avenue were already closed for the evening or empty. It will be interesting to see if the Food Market is as popular a year from now.
Facts: The Food Market; Hampden; 1017 W. 34th St.; 410.366.0606; TheFoodMarketBaltimore.com; Full bar • Free valet parking • Limited vegetarian options
Dinner Sunday–Thursday 5–11pm • Friday & Saturday, 5-12; Brunch Friday, Saturday & Sunday 9am–3pm