clementine

this is my story of my experiences with the restaurant clementine...

it's a stagnant, humid friday evening when i step into clementine. a couple of patrons are waiting patiently in the doorway to be seated. the restaurant is packed. i slide around them and snag a seat at the bar. just as i sit, a whole new crowd of customers comes clattering in, cluttering up the doorway.

the night is chaos and confusion. a line of drink tickets is a jumbled mess on the bar. servers jostle their way to and fro; dashing drinks to tables and returning quickly back with empty glasses to clean.

i'm on my own, which is a new thing for me, but it doesn't feel that way. despite the hectic dinner rush, my order is tapped into the micros computer and a pear cider quickly finds its way in front of me. as the staff bustles around me, i take out my book and try to write this review.

but i'm distracted. not just by my notebook, which i don't like, or by the man looming next to me, inappropriately taking photos of the bar and the staff without their permission. this review has been a long while in writing, and even now i don't know if i can say all the thoughts i'm thinking.

my first foray into clementine was shortly after the restaurant opened. it was a one-room establishment then – since then they've grown to two dining rooms (one a cool blue and the other a larger, vivacious burnt umber). that first experience was an experience - one that i didn't know if i wanted to repeat. up against my own picky eating (don't ask if you don't know my food quirks – though that could be a whole other post); the newness of the restaurant (they were clearly still working out some kinks –  especially since it took about four tries for the then waitress to get my drink order right: and orange juice and a bottle of vitamin water); and, if i remember correctly, a migraine; there really wasn't much anyone involved could have done to better the situation. i do remember appreciating the fact that they had kept the old flooring. (having lived down the street since i was seven, i've seen the building go through many adaptations.) and i enjoyed the eclectic furnishings. but the menu back then was very limited – especially for a non-cheese eating person like me. unsurprisingly, the call to trek back up the street was not strong.

and then i moved away. clementine wasn't close by anymore and, while i do try to explore places that aren't on my normal route, somehow venturing back into my old neighborhood was never really on the list. a year and a half or so passed before i even thought to return.

the clementine i returned to last fall was a grown-up version of the restaurant i had first visited. along with the new dining room, an updated, sophisticated, seasonable menu had replaced (or perhaps, just evolved from) the former limited-diner version. a sleek bar and elegant country-kitchen-style high top had settled invitingly in the new doorway and were flanked by a cozy circle of leather couches. repurposed church pews mingled at tables and a curing room proudly displayed itself through large windowpanes at the back of the main dining room. mirrors and artwork from local artists bedecked the walls.

being the bar-going girl i am, i sat at the bar. and because i wasn't the repeat loner then that i often am now, i was joined by my then-boyfriend and a few good friends: ct, eh, and mr. from that visit i learned a few key things about the upgraded clementine: the bartender a- (who i believe is the main bartender, but i can't say for sure) is wonderfully friendly and capable; even if you don't eat at clementine (i didn't that night, but ct and eh shared a charcuterie platter and mr indulged in the fantastical mac n' cheese) the food is gorgeous to look at; they have an excellent and intriguing selection of beers, wine, and cocktails; and finally, but not necessarily unimportantly, i absolutely love clementine's painted tin ceiling. (it's one of those ones that is honeycombed with square decorations... just awesome.)

i was only able to convince my ex to go back with me to clementine a few times before winter cruelly struck baltimore. each of those times a- was working and each time she remembered us. mostly we sat at the bar, but one time we relaxed on the sofas. we tried new ales and once we got an appetizer. (more on that later.)

and then winter hit. and it was ghastly. for weeks i stayed cooped up miserably in my room, not writing the blog posts i should have been penning, and getting a serious case of cabin fever as day after day my office was incredibly closed. (i work for the library – we don't close. it was strange.) my cat, phebe, on the other hand, was thrilled to have my lap entirely at her disposal for napping. finally, after enough of the snow and ice had melted and my cabin fever had hit an all-time high, i pulled on my boots and trudged my way up the street.

it was when a- greeted me with: "where have you been? we were open!" and preceded to scold me for not coming back sooner that i knew for certain that i really liked clementine.

from that point on, it's harder to distinguish individual sojourns to clementine. i took my mother there for brunch a couple weekends back. we had a new and slightly frazzled, but competent, waitress and spent most of the time guessing what the large party seated next to us was celebrating. ap and i tried, and enjoyed, cockles for the first time on saint patrick's day. hb joined me the other week to try out clementine's limited-(but delicious!)-service-and-menu tuesday taco night. nn drove up one friday night and we celebrated the end of the week with creative cocktails laced with lavender and rich entrées (i had the chesapeake oysters sautéed in bourbon cream with corn and spinach over anise french toast... yeah, just think about that one) before going home to bake tabasco cinnamon sugar cookies. and i regularly made a point of going up on my own, enjoying the space and indulging in seafood pâtés when stressful workdays got to me.

and yet, sitting at the bar that friday night, trying to write and being so incredibly unsuccessful, there was really only one thing i was thinking about, that i was trying to find words to describe: tuna tartar.

while so much of what i've tried at clementine's has been excellent, tuna tartar – that first appetizer i tried way back when – stands out as my personal favorite. the tuna, tossed with sriracha, tamari, cilantro, and scallions, melts in your mouth. the heat of the sriracha plays pleasantly with the cilantro. this is a dish to be reckoned with – one to go out of your way to go back for. it's craveable. it's also seasonal, and has been off the menu for some months.

as i finally luxuriate in my own small tuna paradise, it hits me that, while i came to clementine alone, i'm not alone. a- introduces me to her coworkers. one, m-, who is off for the night, sits next to me and tells me her opinions of the different drinks she tries. when kitchen hijinks ensue, i'm included in the story. a server, a- (another a-! and i am suddenly rewriting my notes to clarify bartender a- from server a- because i live and write in a world of initials) gives me a taste of one of the new beers they've just started carrying. we gossip about the slightly creepy, photographing gentleman after he leaves.

sometimes i really do miss waiting tables. i miss the camaraderie, the inside jokes, even (occasionally) being in the weeds. while not dragging me back into the kitchen and throwing an apron on me, the staff of clementine’s was kind enough to invite me in as friend. i'll definitely be back up street before the tuna tartar disappears again from the menu – but next time i won't be visiting just for the appetizers.

 

curious why this review isn't very review-y? my thoughts on restaurant reviews are here.