Restaurant Week is an event that garners either joy in the hearts of poor post-grads or contemptuous ridicule from people who think of dining out as a second job. For some, a three-course dinner in the thirty-ish dollar range is the best way to dine out; for others, this event is rarely a deal as it usually translates to limited menus, smaller portions, and huge crowds. There is rarely any middle ground. Being the odd duckling I am, I do fall into that middle though. It’s true that the food isn’t up to any restaurant’s normal standard and that you’re probably only saving ten dollars or so, but it’s a deal most of my friends flock to and one that I can get behind as long as it’s a restaurant I’m excited to try.
Having never dined in Baltimore during Restaurant Week, I spent more time than most exploring the options presented to me when my cousin asked me if I’d be interested in joining her and her fiancé for this dinner deal. After some debate, we ended up with a reservation at Pen & Quill, a restaurant that I was already imaging filled with hipsters due to the ampersand in the name.
Walking into the funky, artsy spot, we were told that they were waiting for another party to get up, so we decided to grab a beer at the bar while we waited. Forty minutes later, and it was well past our reservation time. The hostess explained that the other table was lingering longer than anticipated. Since the bar had cleared out and we were all ready to sink our teeth into something, we ended up staying there and asking to see the Restaurant Week menu. As with most places where people in flannel are behind the bar, the service was laid back, but precise. Not a style everyone enjoys, but one I don’t mind when I’m with a group. Especially a hungry group.
There were three options for each course, and with three of us trying this restaurant out, it was an easy decision to just order one of everything and see which plates were the best. To start, I went for the Beef Brisket Steam Bun. Being a steam bun virgin, the spongy texture was a bit off-putting. Yet the tender brisket and the tangy horseradish cream were good enough to keep me eating until I could get used to the unusual texture of the bun. However, the real star of the appetizers we tried was the smoky BBQ Shrimp that was balanced out by creamy polenta. It was a hearty option for a cold evening out, and we all agreed that this one was the winner of the entire evening.
We still had a few courses to get through though. Like most Maryland restaurants, there was a focus on seafood, and I went for the entree promising the most of my fishy friends, Bouillabaisse. Presented to me steaming and adorned with a big piece of black bass, this was undoubtedly a meal for a seafood lover. Brimming with mussels and clams, I alternated between taking bites of seafood and sopping up the tomato broth with my bread. The slightest of missteps occurred when I delved into the shrimp, as they seemed just a touch too dry and overcooked when compared to the rest of the bowl. Again, I ended up with the second best option as I enjoyed my bite of the fragrant Spinach Cavatelli a bit more. The rosemary pesto added an herbaceous quality to the pasta, and despite my ambivalence towards Italian food, I found myself taking more than one bite.
For Restaurant Week, the portions were large, and by the time dessert came out, I was stuffed. The dessert I intended to scarf down, the Creme Brulee, was all gone by the time we were ready. So, instead we opted for two Sticky Toffee Puddings and one Peanut Butter Pie. Sticky toffee pudding is a dessert from the Gods who understand that sweets make the world go round. This one included banana butter crunch, and it was like someone smashed a banana in my face. It was hard to choke down the few bites I did have, but my cousin was more than happy to finish my share. It was one of those desserts where I could appreciate the quality of it without actually wanting to eat it. Unlike sticky toffee pudding, bananas are a curse. The peanut butter pie fell somewhere in the middle of the food of the Gods destroyed by a curse. It was a nice, solid way to end the meal, but nothing meant to change my life.
Though not the best Restaurant Week meal I’ve ever had, the pros of Pen & Quill outweighed the few cons, and I’d come back again to try it on a night not bound by the confines of this event. For those who do enjoy dining out during Restaurant Week, I would recommend Pen & Quill; still, I would suggest making a reservation around six or seven p.m. to avoid getting screwed out of a table like we did, particularly if you don’t enjoy going with the flow. With an evolving menu that changes to reflect seasonal foods, I can’t wait to try this restaurant again in the summer, when I’m sure fresh veggies abound and the restaurant contrasts the hot season with light food.