Restaurateurs Bill Irvin (La Folie, Boat House, Falafelicious) and Patrick Dahlgren (Row House Grill, Heavy Seas Alehouse) have transformed the space recently known as Le Garage, and Dogwood before that, into Avenue Kitchen & Bar. The new restaurant occupies a narrow niche in Hampden—more casual than the Food Market, more interesting than Five and Dime, more grown up than Wicked Sisters— with a solid American menu that straddles the southern border and reflects chef Audiel Vera’s Mexican roots.
Chef. Vera, who spent his childhood in the Bronx before moving to Houston to live with family, learned to cook from his father and his mother, whose childhood responsibility in Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, had been making tortillas for the family (His aunt, he says, took care of the chickens, while his uncle made sure the corn was picked). Vera left college in Texas to come to Baltimore and attend culinary school at what is now Stratford University. He worked for 10 years with the Foreman Wolf group, at Pazo and Petit Louis. He later worked at Waterfront Kitchen and then started his own short-lived concept, Bmore Cocina in upper Fells Point. Working with Cindy Wolf, he says, “instilled classic techniques, while this little corner,” he points to the “Tacos & Crudos” section on the menu, with its ahi poke and carnita tacos, has a distinct Mexican influence. To Vera, the tortilla is the key to good Mexican food. “People try to experiment with fillings, but what it comes down to is making a good tortilla,” he says. The soft disks are made by hand from the yellow corn meal his mother brings from Mexico. While Vera admits to an ambition of becoming renowned for his Mexican cuisine (“We don’t really have any great Mexican food in Baltimore,” he laments, notably exempting his sister’s place, Luchadoras and a taco truck on Broadway.), the Avenue menu is multi-cultural.
Food. “I’m first American, then Mexican,” Vera says. “I want to showcase that this country is a melting pot.” Irvin likewise describes Avenue Kitchen and Bar as “casual American with continental influences,” he says. There’s barbecued pork ribs and Greek-style chicken with braised spinach and tzatziki, a classic fried oyster po’boy and a vegan grain bowl. The burger, Creekstone Farms beef with a caramelized onions on a brioche bun is a must-have, and even the roasted baby carrots, with a Kerala-style yogurt dressing are crave-worthy. Tip: After 10 p.m., join industry pros for the late night “lunch box,” a choice of Japanese or American-style dogs or tacos with a Narragansett tall boy for 11 bucks.
Décor and lighting. The cavelike space is accessed via a long ramp, giving all who enter a sense of either great adventure or something more ominous. Independent designer Senta Maurer (who also works at The House Downtown), did the artwork for the restaurant, abstract acrylics with bold shapes, in bright colors with the occasional metallic. She also consulted on the other design elements in the restaurant, such as repainting metal tables in the bar to lighten the space.
Kelly Walker, whose company, Artstar, specializes in both refining rough spaces and roughing up new surfaces to look old, added such touches as a faux distressed brick wall made of plaster and paint in the private dining room and installed ship lap in the upstairs entry that looks like teak. Some of the previous infrastructure, like the long tufted banquette along the side wall, the Ikea-style cube shelving that separate dining area and bar, remain.
Because the restaurant is below ground, there’s that, um, lighting problem. Rand Dorman of Dorman Lighting helped to brighten things up. French bistro style pendant lights inside and lanterns at the entrance are “in the aged brass family,” Dorman says. “It looks like something you’d see at a bistro Salinger would go to.” he adds.
Bar. Irvin was in the news during the summer for effort to trademark the term Frosé, a slushie-like concoction of frozen rosé and strawberry purée, and his success at trademarking Fro-blanc (Reisling with macerated peaches). So yes, those drinks will be available at the Hampden joint. In cooler weather, look for classic cocktails along with wine and beer lists that are short and sweet. The restaurant shares a spacious entryway with Yoga Tree, with its trademark orange door. Previously, the space housed a carryout window for frites, a signature at Le Garage. Irvin and Dahlgren, have built a small bar in the space, with tables spilling out to the sidewalk. Neither anticipates a conflict with the yoga traffic. “Hopefully when they leave, they’ll stop for a glass of wine,” Irvin says.
Final verdict. With its multi-cultural menu and laid-back vibe, the new Kitchen & Bar may well become a bright spot on the Avenue.
911 W. 36th Street