Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock
“Crab cakes and football – that’s what Maryland does!”
This line from Wedding Crashers is printed over the door at Loch Bar in Baltimore’s Harbour East area. I didn’t get to a Ravens game, but I couldn’t leave town without trying their crab cakes.
They aren’t called Maryland Crab Cakes for nothing. The defining feature of a Maryland Crab Cake is that it’s made with a blue crab from Chesapeake Bay. The crabmeat is steamed (not boiled) and the cakes are broiled (not fried). They’re often prepared with Old Bay Seasoning, and “no fluff,” according to one of my dining companions.
And you don’t dare mess with your crab cakes here. One highly regarded restaurant decided to put their own spin on them. They received so much negative feedback that they changed their recipe to the traditional style.
I ate lunch at Loch Bar, which specializes in seafood. The baked crab dip, made with artichoke, cheddar, Gruyere, and smoked Gouda was a wonderful accompaniment for celery, carrots and baguette. The yellowfin tuna poke was studded with tuna and avocado, and served with a tangy soy ginger dressing. But no matter how good they were, the star of the meal was undeniably my crab cake sandwich. Served on a crusty bun with a fresh side salad, it tasted of crab with – as promised – very little filler, letting the wonderful and slightly sweet flavour of crabmeat shine through.
My evening meal at Minnow restaurant was equally terrific, though completely different. Minnow’s cocktail menu ranges from One Tough Kitten (made with Tom Cat Gin) to Through the Looking Glass (with butterfly pea-infused lychee pearls). When I asked owner Jake Lefenfeld if he offered any scotch cocktails, he made up one on the spot. He poured me a Nomad Whisky, then put it in his homemade cocktail smoker into which smoke is pumped from a small hand smoker. The effect is gorgeous, and the drink was superlative, sweet and complex with overtones of citrus.
We just ordered appetizers at Minnow, and I highly recommend both the crispy oysters with lemon aioli and the cheese and charcuterie board.
One more food that’s unique to the state: Berger cookies, a shortbread cookie covered in a coat of thick fudgy chocolate. They’re unapologetically sweet, and will make you feel like you’re eight years old again.
American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM)
There’s nothing else in Baltimore like the American Visionary Art Museum. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else in the world like it, either. From a sculpture of Baltimore performer Divine, to an 1800-pound ball made of brassieres, the exhibits are quirky and thought-provoking.
AVAM champions self-taught artists, those who are outside the conventional art community. Founder and principal curator Rebecca Hoffberger is the perfect ambassador: her passion for AVAM is almost single-handedly what brought it to fruition in a former whiskey warehouse.
Fifi and Babe (the big blue ox) came to AVAM after one of Baltimore’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Races. In this race, competitors build amphibious, human-powered works of art that are pedaled through the city and then floated across Baltimore’s Inner Harbour. The Mediocre Award goes to the participant who finishes exactly in the middle, while the Golden Dinosaur is awarded to the most memorable breakdown. Both Fife and Babe survived to live another day.
Screen paintings are unique to Baltimore, and are represented here by the row home theatre. Before air conditioning was invented, residents wanted to keep their shades open, but not be seen in their underwear by passersby. As a result, they started painting their window screens, so they could see out (and ensure a fresh breeze) but no one could see in. After air conditioning was invented, screen painting remained as an art form.
One of the most important exhibits at AVAM is Aurora Borealis, a mosaic that decorates one of the museum’s exterior walls. Designed by artist Mari Gardner, it was completed by incarcerated youth. The result is a stunning depiction of the night sky in mosaic tiles and crystals. The young people took significant pride in their work and the new skills they cultivated. Hoffberger notes, “Over fourteen years, none of the young teens ever gave us a minute of trouble.”
I’ve just scratched the surface of AVAM – I encourage you to see the Bra Ball, the descending Icarus statue, the Baltimore Blues car, the statue inspired by the Hubble Telescope and much more.
Fell’s Point is a National Historic District with roots based in the outsiders who settled there. It was founded in the mid-18th century as a shipbuilding district, and was known for the three B’s – bars, brothels, and boarding houses. It narrowly missed being demolished to make way for a freeway in the 1960s, and has been revitalized into a lovely district for walking and shopping. But the spirit of the outsider remains.
There’s been a bar at 1626 Thames St. since 1775, making it the only bar in Maryland to exist before, during and after Prohibition. The Horse You Came In On is a neighbourhood favourite that claims to be the place Edgar Allen Poe had his last drink, before being found in a coma – in someone else’s clothes – and dying a few days later. (You knew Poe would die dramatically, right?)
Sound Garden (1616 Thames) has been named one of the best American music stores by both Rolling Stone and Billboard magazine. Owner Bryan Burkert was part of the group that introduced the first Record Store Day, which is now celebrated internationally. Since he both buys and sells LPs, I asked what some of his favourite finds were. He answered, “Every day brings another ‘must-have’ piece. Just yesterday I snagged an out-of-print Aretha Franklin Live At Fillmore West. Ray Charles makes a guest appearance.” Safe to say that whatever genre you’re looking for, you’ll find something to like.
If you love independent bookstores, don’t miss Greedy Reads (1744 Aliceanna). Owner Julia Fleischaker worked in publishing in New York before opening the store earlier this year. “There’s an old joke that everyone who works in publishing secretly wants to write a book or open a store,” she said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have done this; my happy place is anywhere I’m surrounded by books.” She named her bookstore Greedy Reads for “the feeling I get when I walk into a great bookstore. I want all the books! I want to take them all home and read everything!” (Same.)
Fleischaker said Fell’s Point is a perfect location for a bookstore: “Such a vibrant and beautiful neighbourhood – cobblestone streets on the waterfront, with really special, locally owned restaurants and shops.” She personally chooses every title in the store, and encourages her customers to fill out ‘Why I’m greedy about this book’ cards to inspire other readers to find new favourites. Her willingness to share her passion, like Rebecca Hoffberger’s, like Bryan Burkert’s, was something that inspired me as I explored this wonderful, quirky city.
I’m greedy for Baltimore!
Where to stay:
Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Hotel – (550 Light Street): If the harbor view rooms with a window seat and gorgeous view aren’t enough to convince you, how about the art gallery on the second floor? Royal Sonesta changes its collection every couple of months; when I visited, local artist Crystal Moll’s work was on display. “My Baltimore en Plein Air” featured vibrant and colourful works of art that showed Moll’s love for her city.
Notes: The author visited as a guest of Visit Maryland, who did not review or approve this story.