Drinking beer and eating well

At Brewer's Art, it's not just the beer and ale that succeed -- it's also the food

Sunday Gourmet

May 09, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

There's no law that says beer drinkers have to stick to pub food while wine lovers get to eat the world's supply of foie gras and lobster. It just seems that way. The best local argument against this can be found at the Brewer's Art, a brewery that just happens to be a cutting-edge restaurant.

From the time it opened, you could tell the brew pub had ambitions to be something unique. It just didn't quite pull it off. Now, eight years later, the Brewer's Art has found its footing with an intriguing menu that lives up to the restaurant's handsome setting -- plus more microbrews and imported beer than you can shake a bratwurst at.

The setting is a once-opulent Charles Street townhouse, all high ceilings, elaborate woodwork, marble fireplaces, huge mirrors, candlelight and bookshelves filled with books. You'll feel as if you're eating in a private library. But this is no hushed cathedral to haute cuisine. Xers and Yers are crammed into the front bar; they spill over into the lounge by the hostess station. They even sit on the front steps to take a smoke or talk on their cells. Things are a little quieter in the back dining rooms, but not much. There are no rugs or really any fabric except the white tablecloths to absorb sound.

Don't get too attached to the menu. Chef Ravi Narayanan changes it seasonally. This is the kind of globally influenced food that's hard to categorize but offers pleasant little surprises, such as beef short ribs paired with truffles. Nothing is simple, except maybe the steak frites with a shallot red wine sauce. I don't know because we didn't try that bistro staple; there was too much else on the menu that set our hearts racing.

Narayanan combines foods you have to love in unexpected ways, such as lobster meat nestled in a radicchio leaf with orange segments, caviar and a bit of couscous. He softens the buttery richness of seared foie gras with a crisp-edged cake of polenta, a combination that brings out the best in both ingredients. The brewery's beers and ales are sometimes an accent note, like the La Petroleuse infusion with the foie gras and the cherry-ale-spiced cherries , but their inclusion never feels forced.

A "fricassee" of spring vegetables with fresh peas, asparagus and mushrooms, had its own subtle charms, but for a knock-em-dead appetizer, my vote goes -- I surprise even myself -- to a small iron skillet filled with bratwurst, pearl onions and six different types of wild mushrooms (as our waitress was quick to tell us) in a creamy sauce. It's practically the only dish on the menu that even suggests a brew pub.

Narayanan is up on the trends, as you can tell when he presents lamb two different ways on the same plate. A juicy pink rib chop was a triumph, but the braised lamb wrapped in phyllo came out oddly dry. Both were arranged with geometrical precision alongside artichokes and a swirl of creamy mashed potatoes.

The kitchen is also adept at the Asian fusion trend, as grilled salmon gets treated to a red wine and truffle sauce with mashed potatoes and a lobster-vegetable spring roll on the side. Meat and fish dominate the spring menu, but there are a couple of vege-tarian dishes, such as the soft gnocchi tumbled with the same spring vegetables that starred in the appetizer. This, though, seemed somewhat workmanlike -- unlike the pheasant stuffed with foie gras and raisins, which was inspired. Spinach and baby carrots in the pheasant's own juices brought more pizazz to the plate.

Desserts are dreamily inventive, if not always completely successful. They will probably stir up a small amount of controversy at your table. Are grilled Asian pears really improved by a scoop of espresso sorbet? What's spring-like about a mango and dried cherry cobbler?

On the other hand, a chocolate bombe with malted chocolate sauce and vanilla cream will restore your faith in humanity. Dainty lemon pudding cakes decorated with thin slivers of peel and fresh berries are everything a good dessert should be: rich and sweet enough to satisfy your need to be indulged, light enough to enjoy after a substantial meal.

Restaurants don't always improve with age. Places I've been to and loved have sunk down to mediocrity six months after they opened. The Brewer's Art is the exception: a restaurant (I can't even call it a brew pub any longer) that like a fine wine -- apologies to the brewer -- has gotten better with age.

Brewer's Art

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1106 N. Charles St., Baltimore

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$14; main courses, $15-$28

Call: 410-547-6925

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