Review by Hope Katz Gibbs
Sure, you love the Irish pubs that are sprinkled throughout historic Annapolis. But if you want to try something new, fresh, and intoxicatingly delicious, stop in for drinks and dinner at Level, a small plates lounge, at 69 West Street. It offers some of the tastiest, and most clever creations in town.
About the Bar = Meet the Masters of Mixology
Founded by some of the best bartenders in the region, the owners of this restaurant know how to mix a drink.
“We approach our cocktail program with the same enthusiasm as our food,” says co-owner John Miller (pictured, right). “All cocktails are handcrafted using fresh juices, house-made mixers, tonics, sodas, and fine spirits. We support local farms and use classic ingredients to create a fine mix of classic, culinary, and inventive cocktails.”
Of course, there is a fine selection of wines, beers, and malts—but if you are at Level, you have to try one of the signature drinks. Here are some recommendations from fellow patrons sitting beside me at the bar.
A top pick was the Oyster Shooter, which features a local oyster, homemade Bloody Mary mix, freshly squeezed lime juice, and Milagro Reposado Tequila.
The choice of two others was the Cucumber Margarita with Herradura Silver Tequila, agave nectar, fresh cucumber water, and fresh lime. And the personal pick of my companion for the evening, fashion designer Jody Maki, was the Tru Outlaw, with Tru Organic Gin, Citry orange liqueur, lavender bitters, lemon sour, and a lavender sprig. “All I can say is, ‘Wow,’” she said.
Food Review = Sensational Small Plates, Group Plates, and More
For those with a small appetite, or as a perfect complement to a mixed drink, Level’s executive chef Alfredo Malinis, Jr. has prepared a menu of fresh, seasonal options.
A favorite of Hogan’s is the spicy tuna tartare, a divine concoction of yellow fin, chili sauce, soy, sesame, and wasabi tobiko ($9). We loved the grilled calamari, which comes cooked in fresh lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, and is topped with crispy capers ($8).
For those who like sweetbreads, Level’s are made from veal, and are prepared with leek, sungold tomato, corn, and preserved lemon oil ($10). The gnocchi is also divine, with green-pea puree, white truffle oil, and red chili flakes ($8).
For parties of four, the group plates really hit the spot. There is the artisan cheese selection, which includes your choice of sweet, salty, or savory cheeses ($4 or $5 per piece) and a side of grilled flatbread ($2). There are also hand-cut fries with rosemary and fresh garlic ($6), Cuban pork rolls ($8), and of course the town favorite, local jumbo lump crab dip made with white wine and shallots and served with grilled flatbread ($14).
There is also an array of flatbread pizzas ranging from cheesy ($9), smoked bacon ($10), kalamata and green queen olive ($11), BBQ duck ($12), and chorizo ($11).
The Back Story = The Importance of Keeping It Fresh
In addition to co-owner John Hogan, 40, who also runs a restaurant consulting company based in Las Vegas, the small-plates lounge is the brainchild of bartender John Miller, 30, who grew up in the restaurant business in Rochester, NY. He came to DC, then Annapolis, to perfect the craft he loves—bartending.
He and their other two partners, Andrew and Chris Fox—owners of Annapolis’ Sly Fox Pub—cooked up the idea for Level one morning in September 2009 when they were hanging out eating breakfast at the beach.
“The idea was that we wanted to raise the expectations of what customers could get in a restaurant / lounge, and literally level the bar,” Miller explains. “We also wanted to do our level best, and since Annapolis is at sea level, the whole thing just made sense.”
Within two hours, they had mapped out a menu, drawn a sketch of their dream high-end bar area, and the Fox brothers had the perfect location in mind. The lease was signed a week later, and by the end of October—after weeks of demolition and reconstruction, including sandblasting walls to reveal beautiful brick—Level was open for business.
“It was meant to be,” Miller insists, noting that the key to their success is the fact that they use as many local sources for their ingredients as possible. “From the eggs to the meat, almost everything we use to prepare the dishes and drinks is from the Chesapeake region.”
These Maryland suppliers include Davon Crest Farms in Trappe, Gunpowder Bison in Monkton, Diehl’s Produce in Severna Park, and Blades Orchard in Federalsburg, to name a few.
“Our mantra is simply that our food is regional Chesapeake, globally inspired, and locally sourced,” adds Hogan, quoting the tagline on Level’s menu. “We believe simple is good, and fresh is best. Our plates are to be shared, and we encourage exploring.”
“The truth is that fresh tastes better,” he adds. “It’s also more economical for us. So whenever possible, we make the recipes from scratch—including our own Outlaw Tonic Water (made from brown cinchona bark, lemongrass, cane sugar, and vitamin C). We plan to manufacture and take it to market in 2012.”
Compliments and Complaints = Three Candles (Out of Four)
There’s no denying that a night at Level is a feast for the senses.
From the beautiful blue-tiled backsplash that surrounds the bar, which conjures up thoughts of a Greek island, to the show that the bartenders perform as they craft the cocktails, and the flavorful dishes (albeit a tad pricey for the size of some of the portions)—the small-plates lounge is a great spot to spend an evening.
The biggest complaint I have heard about this lovely little lounge was that the liquid masterpieces aren’t big enough to catch a buzz.
“For $9 a pop, the pours could be a little more generous,” one patron suggested. “A couple of big sips and my cocktail is finished. So after one, I usually switch over to wine, especially if I’m staying for dinner.”