Has the Baltimore restaurant scene woken up from a nap? After a few sluggish years, with more news of closings than openings, the scene is showing signs of life, with high-profile debuts and new, creative menus on the way.
Coelum, which opened last July in the Canton space formerly occupied by Gitan Bistro Cru, is part of that wave. If the next few restaurants that open in Baltimore are even half as good as Coelum, we are in for quite a ride this season.
Coelum means “heaven” or “sky” in Latin, and if you’re wondering (like we were) how to pronounce it, it’s “koy-loom.” The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Corey Laub and sommelier Ryan Thacker, both Baltimore restaurant veterans. Laub rose to prominence as the chef at Fork & Wrench and Modern Cook Shop, and Thacker helped open the Sagamore Pendry before moving on to work in D.C.
I was upset when Fork & Wrench closed in 2018. It was a place I’d loved since it opened. Happily, Coelum exhibits some of my favorite elements of the erstwhile restaurant, including Laub’s skillful technique and intriguing approach to combining ingredients.
We started with a pair of appetizers: shishito peppers and shrimp croquettes.
Shishito peppers are my favorite newfangled bar snack; they’re simple, but easy to elevate. Coelum’s peppers were seared until blistered in spots, served over vanilla carrot purée and mustard beurre blanc, with a bit of Manchego cheese grated on top. Maybe that sounds complicated, but the final product didn’t seem overthought. It just tasted good–spicy and salty, tempered with a little creaminess from the sauces.
Like the peppers, the shrimp croquettes were a theoretically simple dish gussied up with some excellent additions. The croquettes themselves were steaming hot, crispy balls of shrimp and batter–what’s not to like about that? We would’ve devoured them on their own. But a sprinkle of trout roe on top and a smattering of squid ink all over, they were irresistible.
The squid ink and roe didn’t overpower the croquettes’ flavor, and the textures they added were exciting and unexpected.
When we visited, the Coelum menu was heavier on snacks and small plates than entrees, with just four large-plate offerings available. We tried three of them and were pleased across the board.
A New York strip steak from Roseda Farms in Monkton was gorgeously cooked and seasoned; a pat of tarragon butter on top elevated the meat from good to terrific. The steak was paired with huge pillows of soft, smoky gnocchi and two surprise condiments, tomato jam and baba ganoush, that made a traditional meat-and-potatoes meal more fun.
Duck confit, served with bone marrow mashed potatoes and a mixed green salad dressed with an alluring whiskey vinaigrette, was also cooked beautifully. The meat was soft and juicy, and the potatoes luscious.
Some restaurants offer shaved truffles on everything. At Coelum, that honor goes to shaved foie gras, which we happily added to the duck, taking its decadence up a notch. (In a moment reminiscent of the show “Portlandia,” we had a detailed conversation with our server about where the foie came from–Hudson Valley Foie Gras–and how happy the geese were prior to being harvested.)
The restaurant’s seafood offering, which also included shaved foie gras, was a trio of enormous seared scallops resting on an earthy bacon-mushroom broth and corn-and-carrot succotash. Like the other proteins, the scallops were cooked and seasoned exactly right. The marriage of broth and succotash was inspired for the season–those late summer/early fall days when the air is still warm and summer produce is still sweet, but bellies begin to crave more savory flavors.
Coelum’s drinks and wine lists are also impressive: interesting without being overwhelming or cutesy. We started dinner with a Tröegs Amber Ale and a cocktail, a refreshing combination of vodka, lemon and orgeat (a drink made with orangeflower). The orgeat drink might be the perfect aperitif; it was light, not too boozy or sweet, and piqued our appetites. A non-alcoholic version of the same drink was also advertised, which is a nice touch for non-drinkers.
For dinner, we opted for a bottle of Prisma Pinot Noir, a likable and food-friendly wine. Thacker’s wine list is approachable and slightly Euro-centric. During our visit, it included 10 wines by the glass ranging from $10 to $20, and another couple dozen bottles ranging from $40 to $160.
Though Coelum in some ways feels like an heir to Fork & Wrench, one noticeable deviation is the overall vibe. While Fork & Wrench made headlines for its dim lighting and Miss Havisham’s attic décor, Coelum’s space is airy, bright and, while not exactly spare, certainly not overstuffed.
Before it opened, Thacker told the Baltimore Business Journal the restaurant’s design would evoke the Garden of Eden. It doesn’t quite reach that ethereal goal, though the lush greenery outside is pretty tempting. Inside, Coelum is lit by strings of lights, and simple white walls are adorned by abstract art and more strings, these with tiny photographs attached.
There’s a bar at the front of the space. During our visit, a movie played on the blank wall behind it. I’m not sure if anyone was watching, but atmospherically, it was surprising and made it feel like we were sitting in a courtyard.
About halfway into dinner, we realized we recognized our server, who had waited on us during our first visit to Fork & Wrench just after it opened back in 2012. Then, just like now, he improved our experience with his enthusiasm, ability to be there exactly when we needed him and deep knowledge of the menu.
For example, we trusted him when he told us the dessert we should order wasn’t actually on the sweets menu. We did sample the salted caramel crème brulee (it was lovely) but also allowed the server to steer us toward a pair of cheeses–one soft goat cheese and a wedge of Manchego–accompanied by a glass of Cappellano Barolo from the list of dessert wines.
The cheeses arrived on a wooden board with bread rounds, a small pot of strawberry jelly, a smear of turmeric-spiked mustard and a pile of pickled eggplant.
The deep red wine was sweet, heady and spiced, and reminded us of a mellow wassail, but more autumn than holiday season. With the cheeses, it was a spectacular treat.
Our one complaint with the entire experience–and it is a tiny one–is that we wished the staff had been more proactive with wine advice from the get-go. We were happy with our selection and appreciated that they weren’t pushy, but given how satisfied we were with the dessert wine, next time, we’ll ask for more guidance about what to drink with our entrees as well.
And there will definitely be a next time.
Coelum, 800 S. Kenwood St., Baltimore, (410) 276-1200, coelumbaltimore.com
Final Grade: A
Bottom Line: The dinner at Coelum hits all its marks, with intriguing and excellent food served by a smart and friendly staff.
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