It’s been 17 years since an unlikely trio—a Johns Hopkins grad student, a librarian, and a restaurant worker—opened what seemed at the time a fairly risky venture: a bar and restaurant with an on-site brewery. Their goal was to introduce Baltimore to the Belgian-style beers and ales they loved, as well as create a dining spot worthy of their quality. In fact, The Brewer’s Art would house two bars, a catacomb-like rathskeller downstairs for local hipsters and a sophisticated, upscale venue upstairs for, well, anyone in search of good food and drink. The kitchen would turn out inventive bar fare as well as serious world cuisine designed to complement the soon-to-be award-winning ales.
Ambitious, yes, and this was before anyone in town was taking beer as seriously as Bordeaux. But Brewer’s, as some call it, exceeded all expectations. Along with winning national kudos (most famously, a nod from Esquire for being the Best Bar in America), it has managed to be both wildly successful over the years and somehow perpetually of the moment—the kind of hot spot that’s still a place to see and be seen. Those beautiful, low-lit dining rooms with their vaulted ceilings and Tudor-inspired woodwork look just as shabby chic as they ever did.
An integral part of Brewer’s success has always been the restaurant, where a series of notable chefs have plied their trade, often with cuisine that honors the popular house-made brews: mostly hearty, Central European-style fare and a seasonal menu that manages to walk the fine line between trendy and traditional. The kitchen’s current chef, Ray Kumm (most recently of Bluegrass Tavern), has successfully brought back this style of cooking after previous chef David Newman’s more New American approach. Think game birds, rich ragouts, spaetzle, and pierogis. What remains the same is a menu that changes according to the fresh produce and provisions available at the market.
On a late summer visit, that meant offerings lightened up with ingredients like tomatoes (burrata with heirloom gazpacho), melons (chilled honeydew soup with a spicy watermelon “crouton”), eggplant (those pierogis, stuffed with caponata and garnished with yogurt and mint), and cucumbers (marinated with crispy-skinned trout).
That said, my companions and I chose two of the heavier appetizers, tempted by particularly intriguing ingredients and preparations. Who could resist trying the crispy smoked cockles garnishing a plate of cornmeal gnocchi? Alas, those smoky tidbits—a little rubbery, a little bitter—proved to be the least successful element of an otherwise lovely, colorful plate. The golden gnocchi had a pleasant touch of grittiness and contrasted beautifully with the accompanying smear of orange butter, deep purple olives, and bright red and yellow cherry tomatoes. A pheasant “scrapple” was a less successful experiment. The fat square of minced bird did, indeed, resemble the eponymous Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, but it was dry and not particularly flavorful—the best parts were the pheasant egg on top and the beet coulis on which it rested.
The main event was almost entirely successful. Despite a compact list of seven entrees, we still had difficulty deciding what to eat: Everything sounded good. Meat and fish predominate, with one vegetarian entree and one chicken dish. Three in our party opted for meat, while I went with fish.
We all loved the rare duck magrait with its side of tender semolina spaetzle and gloss of basil emulsion. And when the two men in our party ordered steak—a grilled bison strip loin and a beef hanger steak—we held a face-off and called it a tie. The bison was perfectly cooked, its robust flavor and sturdy but juicy texture yielding possibly the best bison experience I’ve ever had. The steak frites was distinctly different but just as well-prepared—melt-in-the-mouth tender and intensely beefy. The pile of frites? Brewer’s Art fans will be happy to know that those famous rosemary-garlic French fries are as addictive as ever.
My butter-poached grouper with bay scallops was the only slight stumble. Despite the cooking method, the thick, mild fish was just a tad on the dry side; I wish it had been more buttery. I also wish there had been more than two tiny scallops on the plate, because they were delicious. But redemption came in the form of a fabulous bed of curried corn and the bracing pickled cherries scattered around the plate.
Our charming waitress bragged extravagantly about the kitchen’s pastry chef, Catherine Adams, so how could we resist dessert? A creamy butterscotch pudding with whipped cream and chocolate-vanilla salt cookies trumped a more seasonal peach upside-down cake, which needed more peaches. But then, we probably should have gone with our first instinct and ordered the chocolate torte laced with Brewer’s own Proletary Ale. That’s where it all started, after all.