By Christine Fillat
Since its opening in 2009, this downtown Annapolis establishment has become known for its innovative small plates. Occupying a historic building on West Street, Level Small Plates Lounge has an open-air front and all the bustle of street life wafts inside. It is an urban oasis, where the people watching is just as interesting as the locally sourced food. With walls of exposed brick, the narrow dining room has an economy of space with touches of nautical decor. The bar scene is lively. This is the restaurant that had the audacity to serve snakehead fish for a special dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. With that knowledge, one expects something out of the ordinary.
Just what sort of cuisine is Level? It seems to be global in its vision, with influences from the Chesapeake and the Mediterranean, one in which the vegetable plays a starring role on the menu.
The caponata is a classic Italian appetizer, rich with chunky eggplant, capers and roasted peppers, served with tandoori naan. The flavors are sensuous, with explosions of capers. My mother makes a mean caponata. This is just as good.
Batons of potato gnocci are mounded with glorious, slippery whole mushrooms, atop a delectable mushroom cream, a delight for the mushroom lover. One wonders at the accompanying scoop of ricotta. It’s a color component, but, flavor- and texture-wise, it doesn’t seem to add to the dish.
According to our server, the Fried Brussels Sprouts is a crowd favorite. Hot from the skillet, and well cooked, the sprouts are good with a touch of sweetness from honey. The goat cheese ranch dressing is a bit heavier on the ranch than on the goat.
On the night we visited, we chose the special, a cauliflower dish. Laden with a garlic confit, the cauliflower sits atop a green sauce that is fresh and bright, with an intricate list of ingredients.
If only the rabbit were as pleasing as everything else we tried at Level. Even as it was delivered to the table, it looked dry and tired. The charred leg of rabbit was bland and tepid, the potatoes tough and curled. The green olive crema and hopeful parsley sprig weren’t enough to save this dish. This a forgotten selection, better suited for frigid weather and fresh potatoes.
Pan Seared Scallops, on the other hand, is an elegant main course to be proud of. It’s pretty to look at on its bacon hollandaise sauce with a toss of fresh pea shoots on top. The scallops are perfectly cooked. They are by far the best scallops I have had in a restaurant in a long time. Caperberries come along for the ride. Bits of bacon could be a little less cooked. Where one would expect salty gems one instead finds tough nuggets. But this dish is otherwise very delicious.
A tender bread pudding for dessert comes with a layer of oozy chocolate, topped with a crunch of caramelized bananas. Yummy, and one bite leads to another. It’s hard to stop at one or two bites, because it’s really, really good.
The main dining room is where it’s at. It would be nice to see the same energy carry over into the side dining room, where one tends to feel left out. It lacks the pizzazz of the main room and makes for a less satisfying evening out.
The dishes at Level have a delicacy of composition. Go there for the fun of discovering the thoughtful pairings of flavors and textures on each plate, and for the joy of being out in beautiful Annapolis.
69 West Street
Annapolis, MD 21401
Open daily at 5 p.m.
Christine Fillat lives on the Magothy River and is an aficionado of Chesapeake Bay cooking and living.
Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 8, No. 3 2017