Few local restaurateurs command the kind of admiration and respect reserved for Galen Sampson. His journey from haute cuisine phenom in the early 2000s—when he was executive chef at the five-star Hampton’s at the Harbor Court—to trailblazer and philanthropist is something of a Baltimore legend. When he walked away from the glitz of Hampton’s in 2006 to open The Dogwood restaurant with his wife Bridget, he not only pioneered one of the city’s first farm-to-table venues, but he turned it into a culinary training school for former drug addicts and ex-cons. When that noble effort closed last year (like many local restaurants, it never really recovered from the crash of 2008), food fanciers around town wondered: What’s next?
What’s next turned out to be a mix of the expected and the unexpected. Given its name, Sampson’s latest venture, Canton’s Farmstead Grill, where he is executive chef and COO, obviously follows The Dogwood’s tradition of local sourcing and seasonal ingredients, with a menu that even features a few Dogwood favorites, like Sampson’s popular mac ‘n’ blue cheese.
Less expected is the new venue, a 200-plus-seat operation plunked down in the splashy shopping center at Canton Crossing. The light-filled space—a kind of post-rustic barn—is gorgeous, with soaring ceilings, an exhibition-style kitchen, and a mid-century-modern feel. It’s about as far from The Dogwood’s humble dining room as you can imagine. Maybe that’s partly why local critics were so harsh in their initial assessment of the place. Too glitzy for Galen?
To be fair, I’d heard early reports of spotty service and less-than-stellar food, so I waited until late summer to give Farmstead a try. But once I did, I had genuinely pleasant experiences (one dinner, one lunch) that I’d definitely seek to recreate if I were in the neighborhood. No, it’s not quite destination dining (yet), but the young professional population around Canton for whom this place is clearly designed will find it a welcome spot for everything from Sunday brunch to late-night drinks.
I had genuinely pleasant experiences that I’d definitely seek to recreate if I were in the neighborhood.
Nearly everything worked well during our dinner outing. Our waiter—contrary to prior reports, unfailingly attentive and knowledgeable throughout—patiently offered his suggestions as my companion and I dithered over cocktail choices. Would the vodka martini infused with fresh chilies be too hot? (It wasn’t.) Was the pineapple and caramel Collins as delicious as it sounded? (It was.) We sipped over a plate of four fat oysters, grilled and stuffed with smoked crabmeat, spinach, and fennel-mustard cream (indeed as delicious as they sounded) and shared a spring beet salad, whose strawberry-cardamom dressing and spicy greens brought out the beets’ earthy sweetness.
There are burgers and other casual fare such as seasonal vegetable curries and a grilled trout salad, but we chose heartier entrees. I wanted to see what the kitchen would do with a slow-roasted chicken breast (a true test of culinary skill), but worried its lavender-honey glaze would render it too sweet. No fear. The honey barely gilded the juicy, perfectly cooked breast, whose rosemary pan gravy made a nice complement to homey whipped potatoes and a side of bright green beans. My friend remarked that her 24-hour hickory-smoked brisket was a far sight better than her mother’s oven-roasted version: She loved the fall-apart tender hunk of beef, the sweetness of its glaze—this time apricot—leavened by horseradish and a good, smoky barbecue sauce. The only disappointment that night was our dessert, a peach tart that was, ironically, too sugary, and marred by a flavorless crust.
When I went back for lunch a few weeks later, I was glad to see the place buzzing; dinner had been decidedly slow. Filled with diners and sunlight, the spacious environs are even more inviting, and surprisingly, not too noisy for casual conversation. “All carrots should be pickled,” my friend remarked as she nibbled on a sweet-tart stick accompanying a skillet of smoked Chesapeake bluefish pâté—nice and briny, although I’d like it better with homemade rye crackers than the house seven-grain bread. A colorful plate of late-summer heirloom tomatoes was everything a farm-to-table fan could want, including a generous dab of burrata. My Liberty Delight Farms burger was medium-rare as ordered and delicious, but the hit of the day was the lamb phyllo pie with Moroccan spices, spiked with almonds and cilantro.
This time around, dessert was perfect—a dense and satisfying bittersweet chocolate pot de crème—but the service a little less so. Our waitress was friendly but distracted, forgetting our beverages until the end of the meal. Still, this minor glitch wasn’t enough to spoil a mostly lovely lunch, the kind we’d repeat mid-shopping expedition to Target and DSW. Finding a beloved chef among these surroundings may not be what fans of Galen Sampson expected, but he’s never been one to do the expected thing. And we’re wishing him the best in this latest phase of a surprising and successful career.
FARMSTEAD GRILL 3721 Boston Street, 410-762-2100.
HOURS Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
PRICE appetizers and salads: $4-15; entrees: $14-26; desserts: $6.
ATMOSPHERE Mid-century modern-esque with an exhibition-style kitchen.