Food & Drink

Smell of Success

Hampden’s Arômes engages the senses.

If you eat out a few times a month in Baltimore (or more, as I do), the menus have a way of all sounding the same, with “small plates” and “charcuterie” suddenly feeling like the most hackneyed words in the English language. But one look at the lineup at Hampden hotspot Arômes and you’ll know you’re in new territory.

While not for everyone, Arômes (French for aromas) is completely original. With its daring menu and diminutive size—only 28 seats or so—plus prix-fixe courses and unexpected execution of ingredients, it feels like a cross between baby-sized Bottega and venturesome Volt.

Arômes’s concept is as concise as it comes: six dishes for $65 (or three dishes for $45), all with French/New American leanings, all of owner-chef Steve Monnier’s choosing. The menu changes weekly, so the upside is that you’ll never run the risk of eating the same meal twice. (Though the downside is that you might be served something you’d never order otherwise.) The restaurant’s bold mission is clear: It’s Monnier (who hails from Reims in the Champagne region of France and who has several Michelin-starred spots on his C.V.) deciding what’s for dinner. If you feel the need to know the lineup in advance, call and ask. (Don’t go by the website, which only gets updated sporadically.) That being said, there is almost always a piece of fish or extra vegetables on hand for anyone who feels the need to order off-menu.

Chef Steve Monnier is at the top of his game here­—as tastes unfold, then linger on the tongue.

Not to be confused with small plates, this is a true tasting menu that shows off the range of the chef. Portions are petite and the menu, heavy on seasonal local vegetables, though not vegetarian, is carefully curated with the idea that you’re ordering all six courses, so skip the three-course option or there’s a good chance you’ll be raiding the fridge when you get home.

Given that Arômes is all about execution, we appreciate the original way in which
ingredients come together on the plate. On our first visit, the courses included three delicate poached spears of grilled white asparagus with ramp purée and a pool of silken hollandaise sauce, plus a peppery nasturtium leaf (can you say, “spring”?) and scallops that have been pureed, dehydrated, and flash-fried into crunchy chicharónnes, reminiscent of pork rinds. They were as instantly addictive as any snack food. Also of note: an exquisite piece of lambchetta, cured in salt, rubbed with French curry, and sided by celery root and black garlic purée to temper the tanginess of the meat. While lamb is not my preferred protein, in this chef’s hands it made me wonder if the foods we think we don’t like are simply ones that we’ve never had properly prepared.

On a second visit, other memorable morsels included a crispy sweet potato cake resembling shredded wheat, and a pleasantly salty mullet bottarga (roe), as well as a buttery tart slathered with shaved monkfish, crème fraîche, and a lime ash, adding a soupçon of citrus.

Chef Monnier is at the top of his game here, and dishes are meant to be savored. Tastes unfold, then linger on the tongue, sauces are created with proper precision, and everything is seasoned just so. (Hence, the notable absence of salt and pepper shakers as accoutrements on the table.)

But while the food is first-rate, the place falls apart in the décor department. The former row house features bare exposed-brick walls, harsh fluorescent light pouring out of the open kitchen, and Edison bulbs hung sloppily from the ceiling like poorly strung Christmas lights. Place settings need some sprucing up, too. Flatware is flimsy and paper napkins don’t befit food that’s this fine.

The acoustics also pose a problem. While front-of-the-house manager (and fellow Frenchman) Gilles Mascarell, formerly of Salt, was quite doting and took great pains to help us understand the menu, we had trouble hearing him describe each dish above the din. It was boisterous on both of our visits, but on our first night, there was a raucous table of 10, and the noise level was deafening. (It’s my unscientific opinion that BYOB spots do, in fact, tend to lead people to drink far more of the strong stuff than they would if they were ordering off the menu.) Ordinarily the inability to carry on a conversation would be a big problem for me, but with food this good, we reasoned, who needs idle banter? As my husband and I tucked into dessert—a refreshing mound of cucumber granita capping a scoop of lovely lemon verbena ice cream—we savored and smiled at each other in silence.