On July 13, I walked into the barroom of The Rowhouse Grille and glanced around, confused. I had been invited to an event hosted by Baltimore artist Kelly Walker and her girlfriend, chef Tess Mosley, called “Color Palate: A Collaborative Dining Experience.” But there wasn’t anything too colorful about the setting: a sporting event played on two TVs as casually dressed folks, most looking to be college-age, sat back and sipped on draft beers. It seemed like your standard no-frills Federal Hill pub.
Then, a manager directed me upstairs.
As I walked to the second floor of the restaurant, recently redesigned by Walker’s company Artstar Custom Paintworks, I felt a shift of energy. The darker downstairs bar seemed miles away; upstairs, exposed brick walls adorned with Walker’s paintings surrounded the dining area. Tables with butchers-block tops lined the walls, nearly all full with diners chatting and sipping their first course drink pairing—a pineapple and elderflower liqueur cocktail finished with an edible purple orchid.
Walker, 41, was immediately recognizable. She made her way around the room, beaming while eagerly greeting her guests. I noticed that everyone who spoke to her inevitably donned a smile, charmed by her contagious playful energy.
I sat down at my table unsure of what to expect. Not only was this my first time reviewing both food and art, it was the first time I’d ever experienced the two side-by-side. I got my pocket-size notebook out and sat back, encouraging my senses to wake up and take in as much as possible.
Course 1: Gazpacho Popsicle, inspired by Patriotic
Each layer of this savory popsicle (something I’d never seen before) contained a different element of flavor and texture: celery, tomato, jalapeño, green pepper, red chili pepper. All of the components of a traditional gazpacho jumped out, one-by-one, coming together to create a harmony of refreshing summer vegetables. I carried my travel-friendly first course to the opposite side of the dining room, where I found the painting it was based on.
Each layer matched one of the vibrant colors of the striped painting to a tee, including a bright purple, the taste of which I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Chef Mosley, 49, a Baltimore transplant originally from Mobile, Alabama, cleared the mystery up for me later. “Purple potato and purple cabbage,” she said with a laugh, “no dyes, no food coloring, no cheating…it’s all 100% food.” As I both observed and ate my works of art, I overheard a woman at a nearby table buying a piece from Walker. Ten minutes into the evening, her art was flying off the wall.
Course 2: Potato with Caviar, inspired by Dream of Flying
The second course was accompanied by a glass of Spanish cava, a perfect bubbly match to caviar. A purple potato topped with a dollop of creme frache and a neat spoonful of black caviar sat in the center of a plate drizzled with green chive oil and coarse black salt, surrounded by a few fresh chive sprigs. One of the charming servers encouraged us to “get everything in one bite” for the full experience, something I’d fortunately mastered on Thanksgiving when I was 12. The components were perfectly executed. I couldn’t help but take another bite before I went to check out the course’s partner painting.
Mosley, who has served as chef at The Rowhouse Grill since its opening in 2011, translated the blue colors of “Dream of Flying” into purple on the plate. There is undoubtedly a connection between this plate and the painting, but each piece maintains its own artistic autonomy all the same. Mosley and her culinary team, including Sous Chef William Levy, set out “to deliver the same food that we use here in a different perspective.” In fact, nearly everything on the Color Palate menu was prepared with items the restaurant already on deck for their regular offerings— quite a testament to the range of Mosley and Levy’s creativity and culinary skills.
Course 6: Beef Tartare, inspired by Caicos Island Sunset
This course featured a twist on traditional tartare, adding finely cubed beets for a subtle surprise while a small, expertly poached quail egg took stage right on top of a dense buttered toast. The combination was light but rich, a perfect complement to its Cotes du Rhone wine pairing. I broke my quail egg allowing the colors to spill forth like the matching painting visible from my seat.
Each of the colors of the tartare’s inspiration drip down the painting, melding together bright red, yellow, and darker hues of purple and blue. The separate layers of color in Walker’s piece mirror the separation of each of the elements of the plate. Combining all of the ingredients on my fork, I saw the sunset interpreted, especially with the egg yolk and buttery golden brioche representing the shades of yellow that dominate the painting. I experienced what Walker later told me was the highlight of the event for her: diners “seeing the food and getting it.”
Course 8: Rownut, inspired by Harborview
Dessert was a house-made “cronut,” a fluffy, layered croissant-meets-donut, topped with blueberry mouse and placed atop chocolate avocado pudding. It was accompanied by an apple maple bourbon cocktail with blackberry liqueur, a fruity and smooth finish to the meal. The eighth painting was primarily blue, with hints of grey and black, as well as spots of golden yellow. Mosley’s blueberry mousse matched the blue hues, while the “cronut” and a garnish of “lemon head candy floss” highlighted the touches of creamy yellow. Avocado pudding expressed the dark tones, and together the elements of the dessert created an airy, delicate, and delicious take on a blueberry-chocolate donut.
As my “Rownut” hit the table, Walker brought Mosley out of the kitchen. She was relaxed and collected, like she had just been reading a book in the back, not preparing an eight-course dinner for a private event of 30 guests (while still serving the regular Rowhouse menu). Mosley let her work speak for itself, saying only a few quick hellos before heading back to the kitchen. Her mellow energy was the perfect counterpart to Walker’s, mirroring the effect of the exquisite collaboration.
“I’m going back towards the belief that food is art,” Mosley shared after the event. “It’s a labor of love and it’s all about the passion. Kelly taught me a lot about that.”
“It was wonderful to do what I do best, which is enjoy people enjoying my girlfriend,” Walker told me of her collaboration with Mosley. “Her creative process is different than mine, but this chick is talented.” Agreed.
Tables at the next Color Palate on August 24th are still available. Contact The Rowhouse Grille at 443-438-7289 to reserve a seat and experience the creative energy for yourself.