The Reserve, a refurbished bar on the outer edge of Federal Hill, opened a few years ago with a menu that seemed to define the whole gastro-pub movement. As early fans of the place, we were surprised on a recent visit to find more conventional options: burgers, crab cakes, salmon, pasta, along with a trendy lobster mac and cheese and fish tacos.
The change is purposeful, according to owner Tom Brown, and the menu is more befitting of his youngish Federal Hill clientele: "I'm looking for someone who's going to buy a meal and stay around for a few hours and drink."
There's nothing wrong with that as far as we're concerned, but as Brown points out, "Don't come here looking for tablecloths and candles" on the high-top tables. Those amenities were dismissed some time ago, along with the quail, the duck confit salad with dried cherries, and the occasional exotic game on the menu.
These days, you can sit at a picnic table on the sidewalk and order a pitcher of beer and a few hard-shell crabs—two bucks each, minimum of six—or a juicy burger. Chef Caitlin Holbrook cranks out the usual suspects, and, in most cases, the dishes are a cut above.
A Caesar salad starter, for example, features long hearts of romaine with a garlicky dressing and homemade croutons. The calamari is crusted in cornmeal and comes with an orange marmalade dipping sauce with a subtle edge of coriander.
We had "jerk steak bites," tender marinated pillows of filet, served with slices of spicy yellow pickled peppers. And we liked the fish tacos with flaky white tilapia.
The appetizers are accurately listed on the menu as "shared bites." Portions are generous and any could be a small meal.
The crab cake, at $21, is one of the pricier entrees. Even though it was billed as lump, we could only detect a hunk or two amid the shreds of meat. It also didn't help that its bed of steamed spinach was somewhat soggy and the accompanying green beans had their crunch cooked out of them.
We were also disappointed with the mac and cheese. It was too creamy and only had a few chunks of lobster scattered throughout. A po' boy sandwich, on the other hand, was a good choice, served on a buttery brioche roll and slathered with Cajun remoulade. And you won't go wrong with a "big ass beef burger" with tomato jam or buffalo chicken with finger-lickin' hot sauce and blue cheese.
Desserts are an afterthought. On the night we visited, two choices were offered: a red velvet cake, chilled from the fridge, and a chocolate mousse cake with a cookie-crumb crust and a drizzle of chocolate syrup (Hershey's?).
But, honestly, the clientele at The Reserve may be too busy ordering another round or watching a game on one of the eight flat screens around the room to think about dessert.