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September 28, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Blue Hill Tavern


Yesterday I reviewed the Blue Hill Tavern in Brewers Hill.

I try not to read anything about a restaurant until after I've gone and written my review, but I've been surprised that I haven't heard that much about it. Usually people start asking me if I've reviewed a place about a week after it opens. ...


Anyway, I'll be interested to hear from you if my experience was atypical or if most people have found that it's a place to go for a great burger and an impressive space to eat it in.

Don't forget that it would be a fine stop for coffee and dessert. Blue Hill's desserts are not for the faint of heart -- or for those on a diet.

(Kenneth K. Lam/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:02 AM | | Comments (34)
Categories: Monday Morning Quarterbacking


When I read this review I was thinking the place was going to get 2.5 or 3 stars. Similarly when I read the B&O review I thought 2 or 2.5. At least for me there seems to be a disconnect between what's written in the review and the stars themselves.

confused, all I have to say is Amen.

OK, we'll go through this one more time. Two stars means fair or inconsistent. Three stars means good. Three of our four entrees were fair at Blue Hill. The fourth was a burger. B & O was also inconsistent. But the food was more ambitious and when it was good, it was very good. I get it that you think there's a disconnect between my reviews and the stars. It's a pretty simple concept. But I'm doing the best I can with a very limiting system. It's boring for me to keep explaining this, and I'm sure it's boring for other people to keep reading this same thing, when I could be spending time writing something more interesting. You're beating a dead horse. Confused (under various nyms) and you are the only two who seem fascinated by the stars. You just don't seem to be able to accept I'm doing the best I can with a system I think is unfair to the restaurant and unfair to me. EL

EL, I give your explanation and defense 2.5 stars!

El you have probably explained it before but if the system is unfair why can't it be changed? I enjoy your reviews and don't pay that much attention to the stars but to your excellent writing of your (and I guess your guests account of the meal and the restaurant.

Just because I think it's unfair doesn't mean that my bosses or the readers who love them do. I'm delighted to hear you don't pay much attention to the stars. EL

"a system that is unfair to restaurant..." To that I say Amen. Why can't you do away with the stars?

I would call it obsessed with the stars not fascinated.

Why can't you do everything you want to at your work? EL

I'm "fascinated" by stars because in other papers (new york times of course comes to mind) the stars are a very big deal, and all one has to say is "Eleven Madison Park got 4 stars". Whereas in Baltimore if I say "XYZ got 3 stars", that doesnt really tell me anything about it.. I still have to examine the review to see what vibe really does.

I guess yeah I too think the stars aren't really of any value (at least here in Baltimore), and should just be done away with.

I guess for the same reason can't, I like that check every other week. And health insurance. I was not aware that the stars are mandated by your bosses.

Now you know why I get a little testy about them EL

Confused, carry on, et al, those stars in the NY Times don't really tell you anything about the restaurant without reading the review either.

Can you handle one more star comment? I could imagine how difficult it must be to put something qualitative or subjective into a quantifiable rating system. I agree with Earl. I don't pay much attention to the ratings and would rather read about you and your guests experience at the restaurant.

Bring them on! I've taken several deep, calming breaths now. :-) EL

Have you done a Top 10 of Restaurants to Go to for Dessert? I know some restaurants won't let you have a table just for coffee and dessert.

I'm sorry, I just don't think this was a fair review. In fact, I'd say it was the review that's inconsistent. You lament the deconstructed Waldorf salad, yet, it's one of the note worthy items on the menu? Also, you go on about how your burger was overcooked, yet list it as one of the main reasons you'd go back? Doesn't quite fit does it? Similarly, in my book, "perfectly cooked" fish is a good thing isn't it? So I'm sorry, I simply cannot give much weight to any review that says that dishes are "inconsistent" or not memorable, but doesn't offer any real justification or reasoning for such statements. As a restuarant critic, shouldn't you be able to offer more of a reason than "I can't tell you why" when implying or flat out stating that dishes were not memorable? So I will agree with Confused above, and not pay much attention to the rating.

Good points, but I didn't lament the Waldorf salad. I was pointing it out as a bit of whimsy, a plus in my book if it's done well, and it was. I was bending over backwards to say some positive things about a not-great meal, and I do think the burger can be fixed by stressing how you want it cooked. As for the fish, by perfectly cooked I meant it was cooked to the correct doneness, not seasoned or sauced perfectly. And, sorry, if something's not memorable, it's hard to remember why. However, I think I was quite explicit in explaining why I thought the kitchen was inconsistent by listing the things that were done well and those that weren't. EL

At least we know for sure what 3.5 stars means.... :)

Seriously, @ Foodie, I feel I know exactly what EL means when she says a dish was not memorable for reasons she can't exactly articulate - that is part of the problem of what makes it not memorable. Been there many times.

I pay no attention to the stars, here or elsewhere, - I want the nuance of a review.

Maybe it would work better if you had five stars. Then three stars would clearly be "average". With four stars the middle of the scale gets really confusing, at least for me.

That makes sense. But since the system is across the board at the Sun, it probably won't change. EL

I've been there a few times always sit at the bar but thought the food was great. The burger is for sure the best in Baltimore, but I have had a lot of their menu. I thought the chicken was awesome, couldn't cook it better. The bartender said it was sous vede, as a lover of great food I enjoyed casual banter with the bartender about the cooking techniques they use their. As well as talking to him about how impressed he is with the chefs and how he was impressed with the passion for food they have and wishes the sous chef was on Top Chef because he is that good.

But what do I know I also think Thomas Keller is a great chef.

That's why I like having this feature, to get other reviews. Thanks! EL

EL, Most of the time I agree with you but you missed the mark here. Have dinner here about once every two weeks..(originally from NYC). Had everything but the burger and love the Wild Boar Ragu which I have had all over the world.. Try the clams, the deviled picked eggs, the crab cake, the Halibut, the lamb.. so many good things.. Go back..Stars or no stars even Zagats gets it wrong sometimes.

Apparently LEF is new to the whole posting thing....

EL- I was quite surprised by your review of Blue Hill Tavern. I have been there on a few occasions, and I have enjoyed so many of their dishes: Scallops with white beans (app), Wild Boar Ragout, Halibut over Soba Noodles, and the Mushroom Wellington (my favorite). I find the Peanut Butter Cup dessert irresistible (even when I am stuffed), and I would hardly describe it as just a peanut butter cup stuck in the oven. My friends and I found the wine list to be quite extensive and the infused vodkas a delight, which I did not see mentioned in your review. I hope that you will give Blue Hill Tavern another try, as it is one of the new best restaurants in the area.

I've been here and loved it. The bacon doughnuts are not only taking a chance, they're a successful melding of disparate things - and fabulous. The Mushroom Wellington (pictured in the review, but I don't remember it being discussed there) was amazing. We had a wonderful time, excellent service, and were impressed by everything we ate. The only negative I had for the place was that every menu item felt about 3-4$ more expensive than it should have been.

Excellent place, please try it again.

Yes, I'm not sure why that photo was picked to go with the review because we didn't have it, but on the other hand, it does give the reader more info. EL

Visited yesterday for lunch, first the donuts are gone from the dinner menu. I tried the "best burger in town" and while I enjoyed it, I dont know it was worth so much more than others in town. I'm a fan of sous vide cooking and I'm glad they incorporate it into their menu and I think their execution is good in the dishes I have tasted there. All in all I'm not sure where their place is in Baltimore dining. Their prices scream fine dining and I just don't think I'm going to make a special trip here for their prices. A friend of mine who originally suggested the place told me it was a beautiful space, to go and enjoy a drink, especially if the deck area was open but not to stay for the food. I think I have to agree with her.

Some picky negatives: I don't like when prices on the web site don't match prices in the menu. I understand things change but I don't think it's too much to ask to update prices. The web site says they close at 2:30 for lunch and the bar opens at 4:00. However, the door says lunch ends at 3:00. While the recessed and framed TV's may look classy they actually can't be watched except by the person directly in front of them. OK don't have TV's in a fine dining bar, fine, but if you do have them let us see them.

I visited Blue Hill for brunch last Sunday and found it divine. I had the crabcake sandwich and must agree w/ Ray Lewis; it is among the best in town! It nearly fell apart with large pieces of crab--a good sign it's not too fried/baked or mayo-heavy. The hamburger my husband had was excellent too-kobe beef that was perfectly cooked. The grapefruit mimosa is a nice change to the regular type you find elsewhere and our waitress explained the unique infused vodkas available in the diverse and intriguing drink menu. We were also impressed with the bread basket-full of chocolate chip muffins and cheese scones--not your typical bread filler. The building boasts elegant ambiance, which that area needs and frankly deserves. It should be celebrated that new, big, better-dining, classy restaurants are opening in the area, as it's an invitation to Baltimoreans to consider the area for dining AND living, which benefits our city and downtown.

That's sounds like a classicly composed shill. Except that I can't figure out what the heck "not too fried/baked" means.

Bacon Doughnuts? Are you serious? If they are honey-dipped I am up there on the next flight out.

As far as EL' s star ratings, I base my opinion more on the text of her review (like, what they all had to eat) more than the stars. I realize EL is limited in the latitude she might get to rate a place star-wise, but in the text you get the idea whether the place is a good one or not.

Thankfully EL and her companions order quite a few different items so we can get an idea of how the kitchen performs.

For me, the star ratings are an afterthought. The real ratings are in the review itself.

Mostly I stop by for a drink after work. It is in my neighborhood. I have had dinner and it has been good most of the time and great a few times...getting better since the opening. Last night we stopped in and it was dead. It didn't deserve 2 stars and it is ashame that someone took a risk, spent alot of money and your review could put a damper on a sorely needed place in a neighborhood that could use the upscale addition. Yes , I am a property owner. EL, the content of your review did not reflect the rating and I hope the restaurant can recover..It is a place young people like and the chef has many new and different dishes.If the stars don't mean what people think then why use them?

Elizabeth, are you implying that it's the duty of a restaurant critic to prop up housing values by giving favorable reviews, regardless of her opinion as to the merits of the product?

"I am Elizabeth Large and I will destroy you!"

My first experience at Blue Hill was for happy hour a while back. We had the bacon doughnuts and the hummus, neither of which I liked. I decided to give it another shot and made reservations for my fiance's birthday this past weekend, and I'm glad I gave it another shot. Several people in our group ordered the crabcakes, and I stole a bite - fabulous. Two huge cakes with lots of lump meat. I will definitely get those next time. My salmon was excellent, and everyone else seemed to enjoy the food. The only complaint I heard was from my sister who got the roasted chicken mainly because it came with a side of mac n cheese. The mac n cheese was apparently not cheesey enough. At any rate, I agree with commenters here who say that Elizabeth's review is a bit tough. I, for one, will go back because I can't stop thinking about that crab cake!

Seriously though, I would never make light of a restaurant struggling in this economy. However, I really cannot subscribe to the idea that EL can effect the success or failure of a restaurant based on a single review, stars or not. I have never read any of her reviews and walked away with the feeling that she was trying to convince the masses to avoid that particular restaurant. I believe that when people really like a place, and anything slightly negative is said, they interpret that as a slam. If I have never been there, my interpretation maybe more of a "Hmm, okay, maybe I'll order the chicken over the steak".

EL, when you are in a position of influence..your words are your weapons. The value of the properties went up when the owner changed an old bar into a beautiful restaurant. Good or bad. My point was that this is an individual's dream and I was sad last night to see that it got knocked before really it even had a chance. I am a business person who appreciates the entrepreneur and was rooting for the place. Just saying in this economy we should applaud the risk taker! And more to the point.. the food is consistently good or great. ES

Elizabeth, nto everyone agrees with you that the food is consistently good or great.

A restaurant review that heaps praise just to be nice is worthless to the readers.

I haven't been there, but I have to agree with Hal just based on the range of the remarks here. Elizabeth, if you want to boost the restaurant, there are lots of avenues open to you elsewhere.

I think people are unfairly attacking Elizabeth. If I had a great restaurant in my neighborhood, I would be ecstatic and would talk it up every chance I could. I see nothing wrong with her 'boosting' the restaurant here in response to a not-so-stellar review from EL. Why should she go elsewhere to talk about a restaurant she likes when this is a dining blog?

There's nothing wrong with Elizabeth talking up the restaurant here (unless she's a shill). There is something wrong with her attacking EL for not necessarily sharing her opinion.

Elizabeth S and Leigh, did either of you bother to read EL's complete review? It concluded, "All those things definitely make it worth a try." That hardly sounds like a complete pan to me. On the other hand, after reading the two posts from Elizabeth S, I haven't a clue as to what is good, let alone great. Leigh, at least, included the good and the bad in her first comment. Whether a rave about yet another restaurant's crab cakes will lure anybody to the place remains to be seen, of course.

It wasn't a bad review (although I have no desire to go there). To imply that EL is responsible for property values in Brewer's Hill is just stunningly misguided.

The focus on property values to the exclusion of anything else is the main reason I am disgusted with those gentrifying neighbourhoods in the SE. It leads to things like residents being far more upset over once a week trash pickup than a murder down the street.

Just sickening.

In fairness, even if one does care about those property values, I don't imagine real estate agents, even in this economy, employ some Zagat score-density system. Certainly not against things like schools and crime.

In fairness, if Brewers' Hill is up-and-coming, then I thought EL's review frankly reflected that -- promise, some ingenuity, but still room for improvement. Certainly worth keeping an eye on, but I'm not moving in just yet.

Neighborhood revitalization is more than just one restaurant, one review. It might be one step in the process, but there are so many others to undertake.

Same for a restaurant -- so you fixed the burger; who's gonna get the reservation scheduling down, or whip the lazy barstaff into shape?

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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