Food & Drink

The Write Stuff

Pen & Quill turns the page in Station North.

In its heyday, the Chesapeake Restaurant was the toast of the town, a place locals would frequent for special celebrations over continental classics such as crab imperial and charbroiled steaks. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and by the late ’80s—after 50 years, a fire, and a foreclosure—the Chesapeake did, too.

For 25 years, the space at the corner of the 1700 block of North Charles Street stayed dark, and then in 2013, a new place, called, not so cleverly, The Chesapeake, opened, only to close less than a year later. Given that the Karzai family’s Tapas Teatro shared the same block for years, who better suited than Qayum and his son, Helmand—they also own beloved Afghan restaurant The Helmand—to come to the rescue of the former power place that once drew the likes of preeminent food critic Duncan Hines?

Pen & Quill (a nod to the original Chesapeake’s piano lounge by the same name) proves that the third time is, indeed, the charm. The new restaurant is a wonderful addition to the artsy neighborhood, which, until recently, offered few eating options beyond a few coveted tables at Tapas Teatro or quickie counter eating at Sofi’s Crepes.

Pen & Quill’s vast and dimly lit dining room, including a stylish bar (made even better by an outstanding selection of local oysters on ice), offers a great alternative, whether you’re looking for a satisfying snack, a soup-to-nuts meal, or a pleasant place to hang out and have a drink from an incredibly well-priced wine list (nothing over $11 by the glass).

With an eclectic selection of snacks, seasonal salads, charcuterie boards, and small plates, as well as pricier entrees (everything from beef steamed buns to monkfish), the menu, designed by chef Bella Kline, who has the Michelin-rated Longman & Eagle in the Windy City under her apron strings, reflects the diversity and quirkiness of the restaurant’s arts-district environs.

The menu reflects the diversity and quirkiness of the restaurant’s arts-district environs.

On our first dinner visit, my husband, Michael, and I sank in to one of the spacious half-moon booths. Our waitress, Naomi, co-owner Helmand Karzai’s girlfriend and sister of the chef (as well as the bar manager), encouraged us to start with the popcorn, advising us that it was “cheap and freakin’ delicious.” Admiring her enthusiasm, we ordered a bowl—this version with candied bacon pieces and just the right ratio of salt to kernels. Her enthusiastic endorsement was exactly right.

The popcorn primed us for a beet salad tossed with oranges, spinach leaves, and pecans. It was fantastically fresh, and the sweetness of the beets paired well with the citrus sections, while the pecans added an element of crunch. The halibut crudo with enoki mushrooms, black garlic, and daikon radish, another appetizer from the small-plates section, was a standout selection, too.

Our main courses included a classic New England lobster roll: lobster tossed with aioli and served on a buttery brioche roll. While delicious, we definitely would have liked more lobster for the steep $23 price tag. The seasonal pasta dish, a house-made truffle orecchiette with cauliflower and spinach, was less to our liking—bland and soupy and not the best thing to order here. (This validates my theory that the vegetarian dishes are rarely any restaurant’s specialty, but merely a concession to those with special noshing needs.)

Several weeks later, a second visit led to a more seamless experience. On this venture, my dinner date and I shared an entree of lightly charred octopus swimming in a tangy barigoule sauce of puréed artichokes, carrots, and onions. It’s a seasonal specialty, but if it’s listed on the menu, it’s a must-order—we’ve never had octopus more insanely tender. A locally sourced Roseda burger with a fried egg and crisp strips of bacon on top was a contender, too, showcasing a heavenly combination of tastes and textures. The burger, cooked to a juicy medium-rare as requested, and the bun slathered in an herb aioli acted as an earthy complement to the grass-fed beef.

On a third visit, the gorgeous polished-marble bar beckoned. Even at the top of the workweek, the place was bustling and humming with good cheer. Our bartender was highly attentive as my dinner date and I polished off several winning dishes including a memorable bowl of beer-steamed clams sitting in a flawlessly seasoned pool of garlic, shallots, butter, and Blue Mountain beer. That and a bowl of house-made buratta with marinated black trumpet mushrooms and Maryland lump crabmeat dressed in a brown-butter vinaigrette were quite possibly the best small plates I’ve eaten all year.

Who doesn’t love a story that ends happily ever after?

PEN & QUILL 1701 N. Charles St., 410-601-3588.
HOURS Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.; closed Sundays.
CUISINE Seasonal New American.
Appetizers and small plates $4-16; entrees $13-48; desserts $8-11.
ATMOSPHERE Cozy and eclectic.