Interview by Stephanie Eyocko. Photography by Eldred Bell
If you take a stroll through Fells Point, you’ll be met with high-rise hotels, high-end retailers, Whole Foods, office buildings, and the harbor itself. The neighborhood is majority White and Blk Swan is a first of its “urban elevated,” kind. When you see the Black logo with Blk Swan in black letters, S bolded with wings, and a beautiful woman dressed as a Swan with a Crown, you’re in the right place. The front door leads you to the foyer, which is decorated with a grey velvet upholstered couch. The Black Swan theme only intensifies as you make your way inside the building.
It’s extravagant and I kind of like it.
When I arrive, everyone is training or getting trained. I make eye contact with a waitress. It looks like it’s her first day—black pants, black shoes, black top, all chic. The walls speak. Notorious B.I.G, Nipsey Hussle, Breonna Taylor, someone’s momma, and many more “All Black, all the damn time,” photographs curated by Aaron Maybin and (IG: Visualcleanse). The DJ booth is a smooth hemispherical cup nest platform resembling the home of songbirds and a techno version of “Body,” by Meg Thee Stallion is playing in the background.
Every piece in the restaurant is curated to fit the theme: dark dining space, the “Birds of a Feather,” sign I notice above me, all the way to the paper napkins and the black matte bottle of hand sanitizer.
After a wait, I’m offered the signature cocktail, “Black Swan,” served in black matte glasses. The cocktail is too sweet but thankfully, I am also offered sparkling water. By my second cocktail, a Pilar Blade Rum-based fruit-forward concoction titled, Pretty With an Attitude, I am just that: pretty with an attitude. It’s been thirty-five minutes and the Chef, Saon Brice, is nowhere to be found.
Finally, he arrives. The Chef is late because his truffle guy flaked on the night of Blk Swan’s soft opening. Classic.
The man behind the opulence, Chef Saon Brice, was born and raised in West Baltimore. On Garrison Blvd to be exact. He grew up in a Christian home: his mom, a pastor, him the pastor’s kid.
“I am a musician, a drummer,” he says, “That was my first love. I played with my Moms at church. I was going to be this great musician, I’m gonna travel the world. I’m gonna be professional and make a lot of money.”
When his mom told him that music was not happening, he found himself in need of something to do. That’s when cooking came along.
Most recently the Executive Chef at a high-end catering company, Copper Kitchen, Chef Saon Brice has had quite the journey.
His first gig was for Sodexo, a food service operation company, at the Northrop Grumman location in Harbor East. For months, Brice would catch the metro to Downtown Baltimore from Owings Mills and then catch the light rail to Aviation Blvd where the Northrop Grumman was located. But because Brice had no culinary background, he was given a utility position, tasked with taking the trash out, sweeping, mopping the floors, and dishwashing.
“People were like moving away from me on the metro because I smelled bad because of the dish pit. And it took me two hours to get to work and back. I was a little frustrated,” he recalls of the experiences.
When an older employee was a no-show, Daphne Miles, Brice’s first Chef, put him in. That day, he made a Tuna fish sandwich, proud as ever. Eventually, his coworker retired, and Mr. Brice was put in the training seat. He had gone from washing dishes to working the deli to making fresh pizza.
But Saon credits his experience at the Admiral Fell Inn as his time at cooking school. “I went to school and didn’t even know it.” Saon worked under four chefs, all trained at the best culinary schools in the world. “I started as a prep cook, peeling potatoes and prepping onions,” that is until a line cook walked off the line. “Saon, get over here and cook,” his Chef yelled and with no concrete experience as a line cook, Saon was placed in the fire expected to grill steaks to medium perfection.
“I became the guy in the kitchen that would do all the garnishes for dinner plates. I cleaned all the squab and pheasant. I was blanching everything. I started making all the mother sauces.” It was perfect training. “I always wanted to go to Lyon or CIA (The Culinary Institute of America). But my mom did not want me away from her, cause I was her baby, ” he says. Chef Saon Brice went to school and didn’t even know it. Chef Saon credits the advancement of his craft to Chef Luke, one of the four chefs he worked under.. “He taught me to tie asparagus in bundles of five and blanch them in rolling salted water, never cross blanching water with vegetables that aren’t the same color and only to use spoons and forks in the kitchen, no tongs.”
Photo by Eldred Bell
There’s a little bit of everything for everyone at Blk Swan. Chef Saon says he takes “French and Italian techniques and puts them in a way you didn’t even think of…innovative, creative, being truthful to the food.” He is still working on local sourcing but believes after the dust settles, they’ll be better equipped. The day we’re there, ‘flash fried lobster’ is off the menu so we settle for the ‘jumbo lump crab cake,’ and ‘the chicken box.’ Everyone knows that the unofficial dish of Maryland is a tall and fresh jumbo lump crab cake made with chunks of Blue crab meat and everyone has their go-to place, including me. The crab cake(made with soft peak egg whites) doesn’t disappoint but it’s the eastern shore roasted corn pudding served as a compliment that sets me off. The ‘eastern shore corn pudding’ is more of a perfectly pureed creamed corn than it is corn pudding, but for good reason. The addition of flame-charred ‘fresh off the cob corn,’ rounds the dish and the meal that was intended to be an appetizer quickly resonates as an entrée. “I want to be known for taking food I grew up on and refining them, ” says Brice. The crab cake won’t go on my “best of Baltimore,” list but certainly gets a good rating on its airiness alone.
Like Chef Saon, the tuna tartare is easily one of my favorites on the menu. Paired with a herbaceous cilantro-lime avocado mousse, it had me doing mental math, trying to figure out how I can have more.. It seems that in all of Chef Saon’s meals there is a theme for happening compliments. The French-style ‘purple potato puree’– served with the ‘blk bass,’– is smooth goodness that easily overshadows the ‘bass.
The cauliflower steak is a masterpiece. For reasons that escape me, restaurants just don’t make good vegan food. But the ‘roasted cauliflower steak,’ takes things to new heights, literally. On a bed of roasted seasonal carrots sits a layer of well-seasoned charred broccolini, then comes a thick, roasted piece of cauliflower topped with blanched asparagus all smothered with the Peruvian green sauce, Aji Verde. The plate is undeniably rich and easily makes you forget the world’s ills.
The wine list has some light companions to the dishes and won’t leave you with empty pockets. There’s even bottle service averaging about $200 per bottle. I recklessly embark on a tequila journey and find myself with their take of a Casamigos flight. The drinks were a bit warm for my liking and 2 of 3 of the flight drinks were overly sweet but the spicy flight with cayenne and sliced jalapeno took home gold.
The dishes we order are all beautifully garnished, eye-catching plated and the austere grandeur makes for an inviting meal but even that can’t hide a few flaws, including a very runny crème brûlée, unseasoned mac and cheese, and unseasoned batter for the Korean barbecue.
“Sometimes you don’t know you don’t know the direction that you’re going or where you’re going to end up,” says Saon. But before all of that happens, “it’s kind of like placing yourself in environments where down the road, you can look back and say, Man, I am glad I kept pushing forward, “ he continues.
1302 Fleet St, Baltimore, MD 21202
Recommended Dishes Jumbo Lumb Cake, Roasted Cauliflower Steak, Tuna Tartare, Lemon Brioche Bread Pudding
Drinks and Wine The mixed drinks are creative and fruit-forward; wines are largely American and generally under $50.
Hours: M.W.Thu 5pm-12am F.Sat 5pm-2am Sun 10am-4pm – 6pm-12am
Reservations Wait until August 2021.