The Wharf Rat near Camden Yards is so serious about its beer you have to be an expert just to understand the menu. That's the beer menu, not the food menu. I thought the waiter was going to faint when one of my friends tried to order a nonalcoholic beer.
This brewery-pub takes its food seriously as well. I'm not a beer drinker myself, but I have one unscientific observation to make: Microbreweries serve good food. I don't know if that's because beer is a great cooking ingredient or for some other reason. True, I don't have a large sampling to base my conclusions on. (Three, actually.) But I'll stick by it.
I didn't even get to try what I really wanted. Everybody around us was ordering fish and chips, and it looked great: crisply fried filets of orange roughy with hand-cut fried potatoes, served British style with vinegar. I know the fries were hot and crisp because we had them with a hamburger. But the kitchen had run out of fish by the time our waiter had put in our order.
The Wharf Rat models itself on a British pub, which mostly means spelling fare "fayre" and calling shrimp prawns. Buffalo wings are R.A.F. wings. (Hey, I just eat the stuff.) The six large, fresh shrimp -- sorry, prawns -- had been steamed to order, so they were pleasantly warm even though they were served on ice. The wings were huge and meaty, with lots of fiery sauce, celery and an excellent blue cheese dressing.
Not to be missed is the Wharf Rat's English beer and onion soup. If you're used to getting onion soups with canned beef broth as the base, you'll love this intensely flavorful version with homemade croutons and real Stilton cheese.
More of that good Stilton was the topping for a fine hamburger, good lean beef cooked rare as ordered. A fried chicken salad wedded Stilton with fried chicken breast pieces and crumbled bacon as a topping for mixed greens. It was dressed with a tangy-sweet balsamic vinaigrette.
It's hard to make a shrimp salad sandwich sound British, and the Wharf Rat doesn't try. You'll get big pieces of well-seasoned shrimp on a fat kaiser roll.
Not everything is a sandwich or pub fayre, and not everything works. A London broil dinner looked beautiful, with mashed potatoes and fresh broccoli, but I wasn't wild about the meat's marinade. It was probably beer-based, come to think of it, but it had an off taste. As for the broccoli, it could have been cooked a bit longer (even though I like mine underdone) and buttered or otherwise seasoned. It was like having a small bush plonked down on the plate. Good mashed potatoes, though.
The Wharf Rat is in the spot where P.J. Crickett's used to be. It's a handsome space, with exposed brick, expanses of wood and lots of beer memorabilia around. Good food, good atmosphere -- but terrible service. Our waiter was the only one working the whole room that night. That was bad enough, but when we wanted our check we had to go find him at the bar where he was drinking a beer.
Where: 206 W. Pratt St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. for food
Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards
Features: Pub food
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 244-8900