Friday, March 8, 2013

Baltimore Social Diary

Kevin Spacey at Wit & Wisdom in "House of Cards." Yes, it pretends to be in Washington, but it was shot mostly in Baltimore and around Maryland.
by Carol Joynt

Baltimore is known for many virtues. Among them are world class medicine and sports. A major seaport that dates to the 18th century. Diverse but significant architecture, good art galleries and museums. Its connection to films and TV series is intriguing and iconic — everything from “Hello Dolly,” to John Waters (and the late Divine’s ) raunchy but epic oeuvre, Barry Levinson, “The Wire,”  and now Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards.”

There’s the food, of course — steamed crabs, eclairs, Berger cookies; and, never forget, the “Hons,” (see John Waters, hon). Now, as inexplicable as it may seem to some, this famously working class town, aka “charm city,” can add luxury to the list. 

Four Seasons Balitmore director of public relations, Audrey Slade, at Pabu.
Let me introduce you to my new hotel crush, the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. Almost one and a half years old, it is settling in nicely as the crown jewel of the Harbor East development - just one more example of Baltimore exploiting its waterfront in ways that should make most cities groan with envy.

I'm no shill for the Four Seasons. I've both chided and praised the chain, depending so much on getting it right. To whom much is given, much is expected, right? They get it not so right in my home base, Washington DC. They get it so very right in Baltimore.

It starts with the surprise of a sleek building rising from the long-forgotten dockside of the eastern harbor. The arrival is elegant. The lobby is standard marble modern but with a softening warmth that comes from the warm hues and the generous use of American black walnut. The staff seem to have been infused with Baltimore’s special brand of charm. I mean, it’s this simple: they say “hello” without simultaneously consulting a computer screen, a check-in trait of many hotels that needs to go under the guillotine. There’s no scripted “welcome back,” which I get most often at hotels I’m visiting for the first time. And they smile amiably when I want to carry my own bag up to the room. The arrival is good.
The Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore.
The lobby.
The Four Seasons Baltimore is pet friendly, so bring your best friend.
My room was on the 16th floor. The elevator ride reminded me of The Four Seasons on 57th Street, but in this instance I didn’t levitate at warp speed to 51. Still, a swift ride. The elevator won’t budge without a special card that slides across a reader. Access to the room is the same. I’ve adjusted to that security touch of luxury hotels. It works. When we walk into the assigned accomodation it is a burst of light and views, and views and views, thanks to floor to ceiling windows, plus a great big bed with crisp white sheets, a spacious bathroom, and lots more walnut.

The views were of the “inner harbor,” meaning lots of water, and include Camden Yards baseball park and the M&T Bank Stadium, home to the Super Bowl-winning Ravens, and significantly, Fort McHenry, birthplace of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Also, the acclaimed Port Discovery Children’s Museum and the Baltimore Aquariam. Bonus points: You can walk to all of these destinations from the hotel. 
Spacious suite on the 16th floor, with living room with fireplace dining room, den, office, kitchen and, at the end of the hall, a master bedroom with water views in two directions.
Ready for a meal and a performance - should the guests feel like a few tunes.
A room with a view, and then some, at the Four Seasons Baltimore.
Turn down at the Four Seasons Baltimore.
Bath for one (or two). A shower is adjacent.
The bathroom mirror has an embedded TV, which his invisible when off.
My impressions were robust. I saw the hotel’s potential a few different ways beyond the basic business traveler. Given that I live in Washington, I couldn’t help but think what an excellent getaway this would be for DC folks — couples getaway, friends getaway, solo getaway, bachelor/bachelorette party. Whatever. You can get there.

Also, I thought of New Yorkers, who would want to come down to watch the Yankees play the Orioles (first up, May 20-22), or the Ravens play the Jets; track fiends who come for the Preakness (alas, sold out). Also, sailors, who can tack into the harbor and tie up at a dock mere steps from the hotel’s back door. Whether it’s from Boston, Philadelphia, Wilmington or New York, this is an easy Amtrak journey.
The view at sunset from the 16th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore. To the right is the aquarium and the "inner harbor." In the center is Camden Yards ball park, and to the right is M&T Bank stadium, home of the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens.
An hour later ...
In the evening the action picks up at the convivial Wit & Wisdom bar, where the bartenders make classic and innovative cocktails.
The Wit & Wisdom dining room, which had a starring moment in Kevin Spacey's "House of Cards" series on Netflix.
Tables with a watery view view at Wit & Wisdom.
The Wit & Wisdom bar on a Saturday afternoon. By evening the lights dim and the crowd grows but it still feels like there's room for everyone.
Breakfast in Lamill with the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
Lamill is spacious and bright with TV, newspapers, small and community tables and water views.
A couple of whiskies in the afternoon. Why not? The long dock at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore.
There’s the appeal of the hotel itself, with the splendid Wit & Wisdom bar (convivial, spacious, and bartenders who are skilled but refuse to be called “mixologists”) and the adjacent restaurant, or “tavern,” operated by San Francisco’s Michael Mina (who also does Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons in DC), where the food is innovative without being pretentiously ambitious; most of all just good food.

This is Baltimore, after all, the home of un-pretense, where luxury is a virtue that’s appreciated only if it also has content. Mina partnered for the first time with Ken Tominaga for Pabu, a Japanese restaurant that is next door to Wit & Wisdom. Choose one or the other. If you are there for a weekend, do both. Being there for only one night, we — my son, Spencer, and Audrey Slade, the hotel's PR director — dined at Wit & Wisdom, beginning with custom cocktails at the bar. After dinner we stopped by Pabu for after-dinner drinks made with Japanese whiskey.

In the warm weather months there are the splendors of drinking and dining on the harborside deck, indulging in the lap pool or the hot tub — again, both with water views. The jacuzzi’s location is comparable to the prow of a ship. King of the world, anyone? There are cabanas as well. 
Wit & Wisdom head chef Clayton Miller. Finishing the wood-fired rockfish before the fire.
The Wit & Wisdom grill is part of the dining room.
Roasted mushrooms in the foreground, rockfish to the left.
The NY Strip at Wit & Wisdom.
Braised pork brisket with celery root and chestnuts.
Chunky and lump-filled crab cake on the left, and a chicken roulade with ham and prunes on the right.
Devil's food dessert with brown butter coffee sorbet.
Praline & Orange with chocolate ganache.
Meyer Lemon panna cotta with pistachio sorbet and candied violet.
A banquette where Kevin Spacey shot a scene of "House of Cards."
In the morning, Wit & Wisdom converts to a breakfast buffet, though there is also an a la carte menu.
Spencer Joynt's selection from the buffett. (Oh, to be 21 and able to eat anything & everything).
Chicken sausage and bacon.
Chicken sausage and bacon.
The yogurt of choice these days, Greek yogurt. At the bottom of each pot were blueberries. Even at breakfast, a warming fire in the fireplace at Wit & Wisdom.
Pabu Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons Baltimore.
The bar at Pabu ... home to a stunning collection of Japanese whiskies.
Anthony Kinn, general manager of Pabu, explains to Spencer Joynt the variety of Japanese whiskies available at the restaurant.
Japanese whiskey with banana infusion at Pabu at the Four Seasons. A variation on the Old Fashioned made with Japanese whiskey.
Booths at Pabu.
Last but by no means least, the spa. Over the years, patronizing both, I always thought the Mandarin chain was better at spas than the Four Seasons. I, at least, had been consistently impressed with the spas at Mandarin hotels and not so often with the Four Seasons, which were functional and useful but not indulgent. If you patronize both chains you know what I mean and you’ll get my message. If you don’t, please trust me. The Baltimore Four Seasons spa could be at a Mandarin. 

It's worth bringing along an extra few hundred dollars to do one of their signature treatments — I was scrubbed with salt by Darrick, who then dribbled hot oil on my skin to commence a 90 minute massage. There’s also wraps and facials. Even if you don’t do a treatment, the spa itself has plenty of self-service pleasures. I would give quite a lot to spend part of each day in the “heat treatment” room, with its array of hot baths, steam, sauna, shower spa and hot tile relaxation seats. 
The entrance to the spa.
Spa check-in.
The baths in the "heat room" of the women's spa without the jets on.
And with the jets on.
Heated chaises in the "heat" room.
Where guests wait for their spa treatment.
Choices in scent for massages.
A massage room with its own shower, heated massage table and heated towels. There's also suites for couples and a VIP suite.
The tools of the trade for the message therapists.
A sunny, quiet spot for resting after a massage, body treatment or facial. The harbor is outside the window.
Would I change anything? Let’s see. I’d have Wall Street continue its recovery indefinitely so more of us on the Route 95 corridor could afford a Baltimore getaway and a few nights at the Four Seasons.

That said, on a scale of average Four Seasons rates, which are typically major, this hotel is not over the top. Nightly rates for a weekend in April begin at $359 for a room with a partial water view, and move up to $419 with a water-view and balcony, and on up into the $1000 and $2000 range for suites. Budget $150 to $200 for dinner — depending on your tastes in alcohol — and another $300 per person for spa treatments. And a few extra dollars for a splurge at the next door Under Armour super store. Under Armour seems to own American sports gear, challenging Nike, and it was born in Baltimore.
There's a lot of shopping around the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, but the Under Armour super store is unique. After all, it's a Baltimore native.
On a garage door at the Under Armour store, the one and only Ray Lewis. Love him or hate him, he can't be ignored.
Yes, the dollars add up. But it’s luxury, we only go round once, and you return home infused with charm and the likelihood you'll take to calling everyone "hon."

Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore
200 International Dr
Baltimore, MD


While it’s possible to check-in to The Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore and stay and eat only there, limiting outside excusions to the inner harbor, there are reasons to journey beyond those borders. One good reason is The Walters Art Museum — open on weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Thursdays until 9pm — and another is a meal at Woodberry Kitchen.

It’s in the Hampden neighborhood, once a 19th century residential area for mill workers but now experiencing a splendid urban revival. Chef Spike Gjerde is an artist with his food, both in the presentation and the flavor. He is nominated for a James Beard award as best chef in the mid-Atlantic, and his bartenders have been nominated for a similar honor. 
Inside Woodberry Kitchen at Saturday brunch.
I recommend Woodberry for its food and charm — and the destination — but also it is a champion of celebrating the foods of the Chesapeake region. For out of towners, that’s a plus. It’s rustic and romantic and the kicky, hipster staff make you feel at ease and at home.

We went for Saturday brunch, also served on Sunday, but they are open  every evening from 5pm onward. The menu had doughnuts, oatmeal, a salad of wood-roasted beets, parsnip soup, onion soup, a range of flatbreads, classic eggs benedict, steak & eggs, stewed chicken and waffles, roasted rockfish and a very impressive plate of  wood-roasted sausages. Save room for dessert, especially the house made ice creams and sorbets, which include popcorn, strawberry, maple and dense, decadent chocolate.
The view from the balcony at Woodberry Kitchen restaurant, where lots of wood is needed to keep the cooking fires burning. Sparkling wine and a Bloody Mary at Woodberry Kitchen Saturday brunch.
Chips and onion dip at Woodberry Kitchen.
Woodberry Kitchen's cheddar corn bread, with butter and jam.
Pouring of the Parsnip Soup.
Sausages and bacon, with sweet potatoes, mustard and slaw.
Roasted rockfish.
Preparing the staff meal. The Woodberry Kitchen line up for their own very good meal.
House made ice creams include malted barley, fresh cream, maple, cookie dough, popcorn, "Lemon" lush, and sorbets such as strawberry and chocolate.
Rustic apple tart.
The dining room coffee bar.
At Woodberry Kitchen they take the coffee service very seriously. The timer lets diners know when the brew is ready to be poured. Woodberry Kitchen's decor is rustic and romantic.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt