He’s back. The well-regarded Cyrus Keefer has found his way into a restaurant kitchen again. The chef had the misfortune of working at several places in town that shifted culinary gears during his tenure, including the short-lived Brasserie 10 South, Maisy’s, and the defunct 1542 Gastropub. But there’s no mistaking his culinary talent. An alum of the prestigious Espuma and Nage in Rehoboth Beach, DE, before coming to Baltimore, Keefer is known for turning out fine fare and won the People’s Choice award at the annual Crab Bash at B&O American Brasserie in 2011 for his excellent blue-crab-and-white-corn raviolini.
He’s now at Birroteca in Hampden, already wowing diners with pizzas like Duck Duck Goose—a rich assembly of duck confit, fig-onion jam, balsamic vinegar, fontina and Asiago cheeses, and a duck egg—pastas like pappardelle with meltingly tender wild-boar Bolognese, and even awesome vegetables like crispy Brussels sprouts that are pleasantly charred and tumbled with the cured meat coppa and black-garlic-lemon aioli. You will always want to eat your greens here.
The other chef behind Birroteca (named to represent a beer version of an Italian enoteca or wine bar) is owner Robbin Haas, whose impressive resume includes being one of Food & Wine magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs of 1994, a respected chef/consultant around the country, and, of late, the owner of a restaurant in Antigua.
He came to Baltimore because his wife has multiple sclerosis, and they wanted to be closer to medical facilities like Hopkins, he told me in August before Birroteca opened.
Haas came up with the concept of a craft beer/artisan pizza restaurant for the building that was once The Mill Steakhouse Tavern. Its location on Clipper Road can be hard to find, but persevere, as it’s only a few turns off Falls Road or off the west side of 36th Street.
You’ll feel like you’re dropping by an old-time roadhouse, tucked along a country road. The fieldstone building and rutted, side parking lot conjure up a scene from an early part of the last century.
The retro vibe continues inside with rows of glowing candles greeting diners in the slender entranceway. Birroteca has been packed since its opening, so reservations are a good idea if you want to sit at one of the white-cloth-topped-with-butcher-paper tables in the dining room. The high tops and communal tables in the bar area fill quickly, too.
And the bar was positively rollicking from happy hour into late evening on the nights we were there.
Wherever you sit, the plaid-shirted servers—we haven’t seen this much plaid since we visited the Grand Ole Opry—will explain that the food arrives as it’s prepared to encourage sharing. You may end up with your vegetable first, then an appetizer, then a pizza, as we did, or any variation of the above.
In keeping with the Birroteca name, there is a thoughtful selection of draft beers, with appropriate local representation, from Union Craft Brewing’s Duckpin Pale Ale to Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, served in chalice glasses. Several craft cocktails and wines are also available.
If you order wine by the glass, Ms. or Mr. Plaid will bring the bottle to the table and pour your choice in front of you—a nice touch.
You won’t go wrong with appetizers like arancini (fried rice balls with mushrooms and Taleggio cheese) and crispy polenta, a creative version of mozzarella sticks, which are set on a full-bodied eggplant ragù. But you must try the crudos, salumi, and cheeses.
The duck prosciutto was a lovely plate of transparently thin slices of meat, hiding innovative squash pickles, and decorated with rosy-pink fig halves. Or create your own tray, with choices like Robiola Bosina and Humboldt Fog cheeses and finocchiona and soppressata cured meats. A blackboard in the bar lists the options.
Besides the aforementioned wild boar Bolognese, we also sampled an excellent rigatoncini with succulent braised beef cheeks and a lush butternut-squash ravioli with Madeira sausage, Brussels sprout leaves, and sage brown butter.
The 13-inch pizzas range from a basic Margherita to a Locavore with roasted market vegetables, and, of course, that amazing duck pie.
The restaurant doesn’t lose steam with desserts either, like a chocolate-fig tart with salted caramel sauce and crispy pumpkin-pie cannolis with an apple glaze and pumpkin-seed brittle.
Several restaurants have opened recently in the Baltimore area, and we think Birroteca is right up there with the top heavy hitters. It looks like Cyrus Keefer may have finally landed in just the right spot.