New Brewers Hill is the real thing, Formstone and all

Regional favorites are all over the menu

July 28, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sometimes the big chain restaurants -- the ones with the loud commercials on television and the paste-on-a-smile themes -- remind of a gaudy cubic zirconium ring. They're so bright, with their oversized portions, colorful menus and "Hi, I'm Suzy" service, but they're not the real thing.

And then there's Brewers Hill, a small, imperfect diamond among local restaurants. It is a real Baltimore restaurant, not part of a chain, and in its own way it s just right.

Given the choice between a giant fake hunk of glitter and a small diamond, I think most of us would choose the diamond.

Owned by two couples -- Christy and Brian Kopp and Melissa and Keith Merryman -- Brewers Hill opened in April at the Formstone-clad site of the former Gilligan's at 3734 Fleet St. The couples gutted the place, turning the long bar into a granite-topped expanse and adding a small dining room.

The dining room and the bar area have a simple, uncluttered elegance, with attractive wood floors, stylish furniture and exposed brick.

And the food is similarly elegant but unfussy. The tightly edited menu serves as a road map of Baltimore favorites, with crab cakes, of course, as well as five pasta dishes, three steaks, four seafood items and a bunch of burgers and sandwiches.

Someone had a lot of fun writing it up and naming the dishes for local personalities and landmarks. "Peter's Primavera" is so named because "the O's head honcho would sell the Club for a taste." "The Oriole" is blackened orange roughy with crab imperial, and a burger with blue cheese is "The Babe" because it is "of Ruthian proportions."

Brewers Hill also has a children's menu, and if the dining room isn't full, the owners will probably turn the giant television to cartoons. (Usually, it's on sports.)

As with many bars, appetizers tend to be spicy, crunchy, pick-up-with-your-hands nibbles. Chicken wings, named for William Donald Schaefer, were as vinegary as the state comptroller, with a pleasing amount of meat on the bones. Potato skins stuffed with gooey crab dip and topped with cheese might become my new bar-food favorite.

The only disappointment was the coconut shrimp, which had a nice coconut flavor but suffered from mushy shrimp and too much breading.

For entrees, you can't go wrong with the restaurant's hearty burgers, but more interesting options are available, including the very fresh orange roughy, blackened with a remarkably subtle and unsalty seasoning, then filled with lumpy crab imperial.

The rib-eye steak was richly flavored and so tender it could be cut with a butter knife. It arrived with a small tub of simple horseradish sauce, but no garnish, a minor demerit in my book, probably just an oversight, since most dishes arrived with a little parsley or some diced tomatoes for color.

A pasta dish with basil-inflected cream sauce and grilled chicken was as rich as it sounds, with the fettuccini cooked until just tender and the chicken nicely charred. So what if the menu promised angel hair?

For dessert, we were disappointed that the fried apple pie and chocolate mousse were sold out, but we were impressed with the generous creamy Key lime pie that tasted of real Key limes and the light, tangy cheesecake, both with crisp graham cracker crusts.

The owners at Brewers Hill believe in good, friendly service. On your first visit, you'll probably be asked if you live in the neighborhood. And even if you don't, you'll be treated like somebody who is likely to become a regular.

In a world of McMansion restaurants, a stylish little Formstone bar and grill with a pleasing menu and terrific staff is a welcome thing indeed.

Brewers Hill Pub and Grill

Where: 3734 Fleet St., Brewers Hill

Call: 410-558-1620

Hours: Bar is open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily; restaurant, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$9; entrees, $5-$18.95

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

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