A stop at Hops is worth the effort

Eats

January 20, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | By David Richardson and Cameron Barry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Recently, several restaurants have sprung up around the Owings Mills Mall and the General Cinemas multiplex. We decided to try Hops, a chain we hadn't heard of. Turns out it's one of the most successful of the new brew-pub/restaurant chains, and now that we've been there, we have some idea why.

"Beer for the masses, not for the classes" is the marketing mantra of this Georgia-based chain of 20-plus restaurants. The founders aim to cash in on the current craze for brew pubs, while at the same time create family-friendly dining spots that feature their own "made-from-scratch" recipes.

Ironically, Hops' brew-pub formula is being sorely tested in Maryland, where, our server informs us, state laws prevent the restaurant from brewing and selling its own beer. Instead, Hops has assembled a good selection of beers on tap, including local brews like Clipper City and DeGroen's, as well as Old Dominion, Tupper's and two styles of Michelob.

Its standard roster of bottled beer is in keeping with the "beer for the masses" theme. The menu is manageable, which means you can read through the selections in a reasonable amount of time. Thankfully, the portions are manageable, too. Although there is nothing skimpy about the servings, the aim here doesn't appear to be to send everyone home with enough leftover food for several meals.

Hops offers two types of soup, chicken andouille and baked potato, both made on the premises. We tried the baked potato, a hearty mix of cubed potatoes, onion and bacon, garnished with Cheddar cheese, more bacon and fresh chives. Rich and creamy, the soup tastes fresh, and the flavors, while distinct, are also nicely blended.

Another appetizer, Walker's Wood shrimp, would make a nice lunch by itself, especially with a side salad. Five jumbo shrimp are peeled, seasoned and grilled, then topped with the restaurant's Jamaican Walker's Wood sauce. The tender shrimp are nicely arrayed on a large piece of toasted garlic bread, with a bit more of the zesty sauce and fresh chives sprinkled on the plate.

The chicken chili burrito features bite-sized chunks of perfectly cooked chicken mixed with cheese, tomatoes and scallions. This is topped with the restaurant's spicy house-made chili and rolled into a burrito that is also, miraculously, cooked just right. The tender chicken, offset by the piquant chili, is a pleasant surprise.

The American burger comes garnished with Cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and dill pickle and served on a freshly baked egg bun. To our delight, the burger was cooked as requested -- rare -- and served with top-notch french fries. The only miss was overuse of mustard on the burger; that condiment should be left to individual taste.

Desserts, like the rest of the dishes, are made on the premises. Those we tried, apple walnut crunch and "the Brownie," were less successful than the entrees and appetizers.

The apple walnut crunch is a bowl of baked apples and cinnamon topped with a crunchy walnut-flour-sugar mixture, vanilla ice and whipped cream. Although it had a nice flavor, the crunch was overdone, and either whipped cream or ice cream -- not both -- would be enough for the delicate apples and cinnamon.

The brownie was too big and too heavy, and although doused in chocolate sauce, it lacked genuine chocolate flavor. The next time we're at Hops, we're going to try the made-to-order milk shakes, which may be a better bet.

Hops isn't afraid to use seasonings in its dishes. That intrepidness, the fresh ingredients and the imagination shown by the corporate kitchen give it a real advantage over other chains.

The decor, obviously intended not to offend anyone, makes the place look like the Ikea version of a British pub. Hops appears to be generously staffed, and its prices, which range from $7 for most lunch entrees to $16 for a dinner of Gulf shrimp and salmon served with salad, are fair, but not dirt-cheap.

Hops

2 Restaurant Drive, Owings Mills

443-394-8417

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $6 to $6.50; entrees $6.50 to $16

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

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