Something is happening in Bel Air. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble -- the once rural little town is being infiltrated by national retail behemoths. Now there are almost as many reasons to drive north on Interstate 95 as there are to drive downtown in Baltimore. I call DuClaw Brewing Company one more big reason.
Brewmaster and owner Dave Benfield opened the classy brewpub last August, styling it after some of the hipper Pacific Northwest locales. DuClaw incorporates all of the huge brewing tanks and equipment of the genre into its decor. It is a high-ceilinged, airy place with lots of light and bustle. The food is straight-ahead American casual (burgers, sandwiches, etc.), but in contemporary, attractive presentations.
Any discussion of a brewpub meal must certainly start with the beer, so we eagerly plunged into a sampling. Beers are offered in pints and 3- to 4-ounce "tasting" pours. The brewing motto is "It's not only what's in the glass, it's what's behind it."
We're not exactly sure what's behind the glass (is it like the sound of one hand clapping?), but we're pretty sure that the brewers' focus is on ales. Benfield and his head brewer, John Tully, offer blond ale, porter, stout and several seasonal beers (Blackberry Wheat, Belgian White). For light-beer fans there's a DuClaw Light, and for die-hard beer hounds there's a 9 percent alcohol Herculean Ale.
We tried a range of offerings, and found them all to be pleasant, true to type and somewhat light in body. They are great for summer months -- very quenching and not too heavy.
We accompanied our beers with a bevy of classic bar foods: buffalo wings, onion rings and ale-steamed mussels. The wings (called Mad Bull Wings) are offered with the traditional spicy/vinegary coating or a barbecue sauce, a pile of celery sticks and a bowl of thick blue-cheese dressing. The chicken was plump, tender and perfectly cooked, and its spicy sauce was balanced, not too fiery and a little sweet.
The onion rings are one of the coolest dishes on the menu -- they are served in a tall stack on what looks like a free-standing paper towel rack with a marble base. The sweet, thickly battered golden loops must be retrieved by playing a kind of reverse ring toss.
The mussels were our only disappointment. A huge bowl of them arrived in a fragrant haze of garlic and beer; unfortunately, they were egregiously overcooked.
Before moving on to our entrees, we shared a cup of the DuClaw beer cheese soup. Despite the unavoidable and undignified long strands of cheese hanging from our lips and chin, we loved the soup, especially its tang and velvety texture.
Our entree choices ran the gamut from a sophisticated portobello mushroom sandwich special to a burger on the children's menu. The kiddie burger plate brought two diminutive burgers (cooked medium, as ordered), a pickle wedge and a pile of greaseless waffle-cut fries.
The portobello sandwich enfolded a huge, juicy grilled mushroom, sprouts and shredded Gouda in two slices of ho-hum focaccia bread (too crumbly). Fish and chips were satisfying, if not exactly healthy, with a lager-sweetened batter. Touted as a house signature dish, the barbecued beef brisket sandwich was a rich, hickory-smoked heap on a kaiser roll served with an appealing, crunchy coleslaw.
For dessert, we did our best to tackle a Reese's peanut butter pie (delicious), a Black Russian cake (sinful) and something called strawberry La Bamba (a gooey, cheesecakey pie with strawberry filling). And over coffee, we thought about doing a little shopping in the booming metropolis of Bel Air.
DuClaw Brewing Company
16-A Bel Air South Parkway, Bel Air
410-515-3222 6Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$7.95; entrees, $5.95-$18.95
Pub Date: 6/19/97