Talk about your winning streaks. The Brewer's Art, now in its 17th season, has had a remarkably impressive run in its Charles Street townhouse. It has managed to mature and grow in popularity while holding true to its original vision and keeping the loyalty of its core audience.
Its Belgian-style beers, brewed on the premises, are deservedly admired far and wide. Service, from behind the bars and at the tables, is direct and friendly. The dining rooms and lounge spaces are in fine, ready-for-company condition.
Downstairs, where a warren of darkly lit rooms creates a rathskeller atmosphere, is youthful and, on weekends, raucous. Upstairs, the atmosphere is more refined but never stuffy, and the dining rooms feel warmer than they once did. On our recent visit, they were filled with diners of all ages, in romantic pairs and friendly groups.
Ray Kumm has recently moved in as executive chef at Brewer's Art. At Bluegrass Tavern in South Baltimore, Kumm established himself as a creative and level-headed presence, with good instincts about how far to push diners. There, Kumm honed his charcuterie and pickling skills, all while keeping true to the Southern-style agenda at Bluegrass.
His first menu for Brewer's Art suggests that Kumm has left the South behind. With its frequent excursions into Bavarian and Slavic fare, the menu suggests a critical culinary pivot at the Brewer's Art. We're headed east, and I like it.
But it's not a theme-park menu. There are border-crossings, like the easily recommended plate of homemade spinach pappardelle, tossed with a robust and pungent rabbit meat Bolognese sauce and shavings of grana Padano cheese from Northern Italy.
There is playfulness. You can easily see the connection Kumm makes between those pimento spreads popping up on menus everywhere, including Bluegrass, and the liptauer, an Austrian paprika-and pepper cheese spread that he's put on Brewer's Art with slices of buttery poppy seed biscotti. You have to get this cheese dip.
And you should try the charcuterie platter, which during our visit featured capicola, bresaola made from Wagyu beef and a deeply luscious chicken liver mousse, along with pickled vegetables and homemade mustards.
Get, too, the appetizer of pierogi stuffed with mushrooms and butternut squash, grilled and served with warm, chives-flavored quark, a soft German cheese. This was hearty stuff, and it only hit us later that it was a vegetarian dish. So, later on, is a satisfyingly robust entree of luscious pumpkin risotto, served with grilled mushrooms, fresh sheep's milk cheese and a drizzle of harissa oil.
Among the other entrees there is a stellar fried chicken plate, juicy thighs that had been brined in Brewer's Art ale, served with a German-style potato-cucumber salad and pickled wax beans.
The fish special when we visited was a pan-fried rainbow trout fillet that Kumm placed in a puree of sunchokes and paired with a fricassee of oyster mushrooms and a puree of radish leaf, which lent a vivid bit of primary color to an otherwise dark palette.
Not everything added up for me. I loved the idea of homemade kasekrainer — that's the sausage with cubes of cheese inside. I'd like it better on a bun, with its accompanying bacon-braised cabbage and black-garlic mustard, than I did as a plated appetizer. An appetizer of Magret duck prosciutto was done in by melon that had lost its sweetness.
A sauerbraten was overproduced. Even before it was sprinkled with homemade hazelnut granola, it stopped looking, and tasting, like sauerbraten at all. Beef cheeks are too sinewy a cut, and a raisin jus didn't provide the acidity you want in a sauerbraten.
Another dining bonus these days is the fully considered dessert menu. Chocolate lovers will enjoy the dense chocolate tart flavored with Proletary Ale. The devil's food cherry cake, layered with vanilla pastry cream and circled by rum-soaked cherries, is a head-turner.
Brewer's Art has succeeded at just about everything except, perhaps, establishing a distinctive voice for its dining program. Certainly, talented chefs have come through, and the kitchen crew has always been disciplined. Still, the menu's best-known item for years were french fries — very good, crispy french fries, seasoned with garlic and rosemary. What Kumm has accomplished already is very promising.
It's perfect for fall, when diners are good and ready for full-bodied fare.
The Brewer's Art
Where: 1106 N. Charles St., Midtown-Belvedere
Contact: 410-547-6925, thebrewersart.com
Open: Open daily for dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$13; entrees, $19-$28
Food: Contemporary, seasonal take on Bavarian fare
Service: Attentive, professional but casual
Best dishes: Ozzy-brined chicken thighs, mushroom and squash pierogi, chocolate Proletary tart
Children: No children's menu
Parking: On-street parking
Noise level: Main dining room is manageably loud.
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: &&&&; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]