Food & Drink

Review: Ash Bar in Mt. Vernon is Pure Fantasy

This all-day cafe, set inside the hip new hotel Ulysses, has a flair for drama.
Steak tartare and a martini. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

There’s a moment at Ash Bar—6 p.m., to be exact—when the lights are dimmed so low, it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust. And once they do, you’ll feel like you’ve fallen through the looking glass, a place where time stands still, and the outside world falls away. In reality, the setting signals the transition from aperitivo hour to dinner service in Mt. Vernon. It’s a seductive statement of sorts.

This all-day cafe, set inside the hip new hotel Ulysses, has a flair for drama, with its high-gloss burled ceiling and walls, red banquettes embroidered with birds and snakes, and purple velvet-clad rattan chairs, made by iconic French furniture artisan Maison Drucker, whose chaise lounges went down with the Titanic. In other words, this is not just any hotel restaurant—or hotel, for that matter.

From the second you step onto the lobby’s mosaic floors, equipped with old-world newspaper racks, Victorian loveseats, and moody Italian paintings, the whole establishment is suffused with personality and panache. And if you look around at Ash, everyone is in on it, from the well-heeled guests hobnobbing around the cocktail tables to the quirky staff. It’s the kind of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to see our own celebrity auteur, John Waters—a major source of inspiration for Ulysses—sipping something at a table.

The Ash NYC hoteliers who purchased the place (and have a soft spot for soulful, smaller cities like Baltimore), have a fondness for scene setting. The conceit is that you’re sitting in the dining car of a steam train or a luxury ocean liner—a place where Waldorf salads and shrimp cocktails were once ubiquitous on menus and martinis and Kir Royales flowed.

Even so, style is nothing without substance, or in this case, sustenance—and there’s plenty to pick from here. Most of the offerings on the concise menu lean toward vintage-inspired fare heavily rooted in French and Italian cooking. The menu mission, says the aptly named head of culinary arts Lauren Sandler (former preservation director for chef Spike Gjerde’s Canningshed) is “to create food that encourages languor.”

“The servers joke that time doesn’t exist at Ash Bar,” says Sandler. “It’s like this weird portal to another world.”

Another world with good food, that is.

Lauren Sandler and chef de cuisine David Pac.
A Sidecar cocktail.

As is the norm now, the offerings change frequently, but there are also a few signature standards, including one of the best Caesar salads in the city. This one features sweet Little Gem greens—the perfect vehicle for the classic dressing, which is brightened by the addition of orange zest. The salad is also scattered with clever croutons that get extra depth from being fried in anchovy coloratura.

In an era of trendy takes on steak tartare, Ash Bar’s presentation is classic, though it does showcase hand-chopped Wagyu beef instead of the usual sirloin. There are only a handful of ingredients—chopped shallots, capers, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, a final sprinkle of chives—allowing the buttery flavor of the minced meat to shine through. The delectable house-made rosemary potato chips served as an accompaniment for dipping are also available to order on their own (and every meal should include at least one round).

On one of our visits, we also enjoyed the 24-hour pressed potatoes. (Think: slightly oversized, upscale tater tots, fried to a crisp in duck fat, then topped with crème fraîche and a dollop of trout roe.) Also on the fried side, the broccolini fritti, presented on a doily, felt like a celebratory snack—six or so stalks lightly battered, then coated with high-quality Parmigiano Reggiano. We ate it with our fingers (anything goes when the lights are this low) and double-dipped each bite in a kicky Calabrian chile aioli.

The Caesar.
The pressed potatoes.

In addition to the appetizers, there’s a featured soup—roasted honeynut squash on one visit, lobster bisque on another—and a variety of entrees with something for everyone, including a vegetarian offering and a rotating pasta dish that can be
ordered as a starter or main.

One of our favorite dishes in January was the vegetarian mushroom pie, packed with parsnips, carrots, and fennel, all swimming in mushroom gravy, nestled inside a crumbly quiche-like crust, and crowned with a decadent potato purée. We also enjoyed a piece of local rockfish. It was served seared and sitting on a bed of pearl couscous studded with olives, capers, artichokes, and sundried tomatoes—the tapenade mix added tons of texture and complexity.

And if it’s on the menu, even if it sounds ordinary, don’t miss the chicken and rice. There’s a reason this is one of the world’s greatest culinary combinations, especially at Ash. Here, a quarter chicken breast is pan-roasted and beautifully crisped, then drizzled with a rich chicken jus that takes three days to prepare. It’s served with sautéed spinach and a fluffy and flavorful pilaf that soaks up the sauce. It’s comfort food that still feels elegant to eat.

On each visit, there were a few missteps in service: a slow table clearing here, a late entree there. But ultimately none of that matters much once you’ve entered a suspended state inside this extravagant Xanadu.

Ash Bar’s food more than meets the mood. While the lighting might be dim, the restaurant is a bright light—and a welcome addition to Charm City’s creative culinary scene.


ASH BAR 2 E. Read St. HOURS: Sun.-Sat. 7 a.m. -10 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $7-26; entrees: $24- 38; dessert: $6-13. AMBIANCE: Whimsical.