The Muses

By Jane Marion

Photography by Scott Suchman

Illustrations by JORDAN AMY LEE

The Tastemakers

The Tastemakers: Rosemary Liss & Will Mester

The most influential movers and shakers on Charm City's Hospitality scene.

By Jane Marion

ack in 2018, in a makeshift kitchen with little more than a compact electric griddle, a convection oven, a cutting board, and a knife, Will Mester was making scallop toast with snail butter at Grand Cru inside the Belvedere Square Market. The dish—a crisp piece of whole-grain bread soaked with a persillade of garlic, parsley, and butter, then topped with fat Cape May sea scallops—showed he could do a lot with a little.

The following year, Mester, 38, and his business partner, Rosemary Liss, 35, made the leap to a stamp-sized boîte in Station North. They called it Le Comptoir du Vin, aka “the wine counter,” after a place they loved in the French countryside. A rotating minimalist menu of chalkboard specials was inspired by their world travels—Italy, France, Ireland, and especially Japan, where, in Mester’s words, the goal was to translate “the spirit and the simplicity of the places we saw in Tokyo,” which were small, family-run eateries, where it’s not about profit but “dedication to craft.” “I have an absolute agenda, but it has nothing to do with making money. I really want people to come to this place, put down the phone, and just enjoy what it is to be in a restaurant.”

From the outset, Le Comptoir was a sensation. That’s because, in Mester’s hands, simple, high-quality ingredients—like vadouvan-spiced lentils sitting in a pool of strained labneh—go straight to sublime. Or something as lowly as celery skyrockets through the stratosphere when tossed with pistachios, currants, and spiked with colatura. There’s an honesty to Mester’s cooking that can’t be faked or hidden in a sea of sauces, and the secret is as simple as the food. “We do everything ourselves,” says Liss, who cooks alongside Mester. “We are always here and when we are not, we’re closed.”

Less than a year after opening, in 2019, Le Comptoir landed a coveted spot on Bon Appétit’s list of top new restaurants, ranking eighth in the country. That same year, they earned a place on Esquire’s list, too. “Baltimore (yeah, Baltimore) can now make rightful claim to having the sexiest third-date spot in America,” wrote the magazine. A bit backhanded, but that’s the point. Mester and Liss, who also oversee one of the city’s first natural wine programs—helped put our little city on the national map, showing that the dining scene in Baltimore (yeah, Baltimore) is as delicious and dynamic as any major food city in America.

Since reopening for dinner service in winter 2022, after various pivots and a long pandemic-related shutdown, Le Comptoir is better than ever. The rustic menu still follows the seasons and the whims of its talented chefs. The place expanded slightly with some lower-level seating and a seasonal outdoor bar. Not to worry, it is still snug. But the impression it leaves—whether it’s cockles in sherry sauce or roast chicken with romano beans, pistou, and aioli—is as big as ever.

The Torchbearers

David & Tonya

The Showmen

Alex & Eric Smith

The Sober Ambassador

Ashish Alfred

The Community Activists

Mera Kitchen

The Crab Queen

Nancy Devine

The Team Players

Steve Chu &
Ephrem Abebe

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