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Free Range

Alewife

A big beer selection and ambitious food make this tavern stand out

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Alewife

21 N. Eutaw, [410] 545-5112, alewifebaltimore.com

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There is a school of thought (to which I’m happy to belong) that no city can ever have too many good taverns. What makes a good tavern, however, is perpetually up for discussion. At the most basic, I propose, you need a solid, thoughtful drinks list that includes beer, wine, and spirits; a welcome space, be it dive or gastropub; and a decent burger. Alewife, the latest restaurant (after Lucy’s Irish Pub and Maggie Moore’s) to take up residence in the former bank space across from the Hippodrome, has this and a little more besides.

Alewife celebrates beer, and not just in its name, which refers to a tiny, silvery, herring-like fish that thrives in the Great Lakes. A selection of 40 drafts, always in rotation, is neatly hand-lettered on a giant chalkboard on one side of the pub’s entrance, while the equally large chalkboard on the other side of the door lists information about Alewife’s mug club, and advertises $5 pints when it’s snowing. That many choices, though, are only as good as the beer offered, and Alewife offers some good stuff.

On the night we visited, the majority of the imports were Belgian, and domestic choices include ales from western brewers such as Great Divide and 21st Amendment, as well as area brewers such as Clipper City, Weyerbacher, and Dogfish Head. Bring on the snow! The restaurant doesn’t ignore the cocktail drinkers among us either and offers a list both old-school (Sazerac, anyone?) and new.

Beer also finds its way into a number of dishes on Alewife’s menu, such as the braised oxtail ($15, unavailable the night of our visit), which is napped in a demi-glace of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, and the shiny black-brown demi-glace made with Stone Smoked Porter that bathes a plate of chewy grilled skirt steak and house-smoked mashed sweet potatoes ($21). (Yes, you read that correctly: house-smoked mashed sweet potatoes.)

The proliferation of demi-glaces and gastriques; the in-house smoking of meats, cheeses, and vegetables; the kitchen’s house-made ketchup and mustard; and the use of mostly local beef ground in-house adds up to an ambitious menu, albeit one that delivers sporadically. Take the shrimp croquette appetizer ($10), for example. Creamy, Gruyere-laced grits, the base for three golf ball-sized croquettes, are outstanding, but the croquettes themselves come out rubbery, and the addition of bacon and its accompanying saltiness overwhelms any other flavor. In contrast, the meat and cheese ($16), a board crowded with slices of smoked cheddar, smoked chorizo, a circle of foie gras, a scatter of cornichons and toast rounds, and dabs of raspberry and fennel mustards is one dish that works completely and shows off the kitchen at its creative best.

Alewife’s entrées include dressier fare such as pan-seared pork chops or rockfish and filet of beef, most likely nods to the pre-theater crowd, but the menu also lists an array of gourmet-tweaked sandwiches such as a Kobe beef hot dog ($12) on a pretzel roll with wild boar chili (which oddly isn’t offered on its own) and the smoke burger ($15), a combination of ribeye, skirt, filet, and brisket, ground together with smoked Gouda and Gruyere. Served on a very nice brioche bun, the burger is smothered in bacon and cipollini onions caramelized to sweetness. At 11 ounces, it’s a big bite, and tasty, though perhaps without the addictive quality of other burgers around town. A Cubano ($12) also boasts quality meat and bread, but misses the verve that comes from zesty yellow mustard and a good dollop of relish. Sometimes tradition trumps upgrade.

At the time of our visit, Alewife offered two desserts: a dense chocolate cake and pumpkin bread pudding ($6), the latter lacking in both pumpkin and sweetness and served warm with several very cold slices of apple.

Television noise can trump conversation at Alewife, and be aware, too, that a bill can add up quickly here as appetizer prices are often the same or more than those of some of the sandwiches. Yet, despite these quibbles, Alewife can be a more than pleasant place to enjoy a pint and a nosh. Service is solid, friendly, even effusive. “The kitchen makes everything with love,” our server enthused in between taking care of nearly the whole room of tables peopled with thirtysomethings out on a date or enjoying late-season football. And the impressive space, done up in deep red walls above a greenish black chair rail, feels almost cozy on a cold night, despite the soaring ceilings. So here’s a toast to making this business work. Pray for flakes, pull up a barstool, and pull a pint.

Alewife is open seven days a week serving lunch, dinner, and post-supper menus.

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