If any local fine-dining restaurant has a better shot than another of surviving in this economy, it would be the Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon. My reasoning is simple here.
First, when anything is going on at the Lyric or Meyerhoff, the place will be busy.
Second, the Brewer's Art doesn't have to depend on events for business. As far as I can tell, every college student and young professional in the city hangs out there. The bar and lounge area were packed on a weeknight, and the downstairs lounge was even busier. Of course, selling hamburgers and rosemary garlic fries isn't as lucrative as selling a grilled sirloin steak with rosemary garlic fries; but it will help you stay in business in a troubled economy.
Third, the place is gathering a sort of mystique as the progenitor of several hot new places in the Hamilton/Lauraville area. This has gotten its name out there at a time when old favorites could be forgotten. In fact, that's why I decided to pay it a return visit - that and the fact that the Brewer's Art has a new chef, David Newman, who has worked in places as diverse as Ixia, Saffron (where Indigma now is) and Timothy Dean Bistro (now TD Lounge).
Finally, there's no place in town even remotely like it - a brew restaurant, not brew pub, which treats beer drinkers as just as deserving of fine food as wine lovers are.
The beer list at the Brewer's Art is impressive, far more impressive than the wine list, which is respectable, modest and modestly priced. The house brews are extensive and seasonal.
Under Chef Newman, the food seems designed more to be eaten with beer than I remember on my last visit four years ago. It's hearty and very seasonal, and the emphasis is on local producers. On the whole, this works very well, but you have to like the foods of fall. Braised meats, apples, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, arugula, chestnuts and pumpkin show up time and again on the current menu.
One of my guests complained about the sweetness of several of our dishes, although I didn't mind. I did avoid a salad with a sherry-maple syrup vinaigrette because I was afraid the dressing would be too sugary for the mushrooms and cheese that came with it. And I steered clear of a salad of roasted apples with candied nuts.
But duck and pork have an affinity for fruit. The ground duck meatballs, arranged in a small cast-iron skillet with a drizzle of Calvados sauce, wouldn't have been so noteworthy without the accompanying apples, bits of bacon and cabbage.
The pork schnitzel would have been ordinary without its spicy-sweet apples and sweet potato puree.
A sweet potato and coconut milk bisque, smooth as silk, could have been too sweet but wasn't.
Still, I agreed with my friend that the intense, sour-sweet pomegranate molasses dominated the subtle pumpkin risotto.
Of the first courses at the Brewer's Art, my favorite was the shrimp and grits. The shrimp are local, from Marvesta Shrimp Farms, and while it may have been my imagination, tasted better because of it. The kitchen leaves the heads on for looks, but loosens them for easy removal. Salty bits of Tasso ham spark the smooth grits, rich with lobster butter. Yum.
A thick piece of swordfish, snowy white and almost as big as a fist, was simpler than many of the dishes at the Brewer's Art, grilled and served with a rouille. It couldn't be faulted. White beans, local arugula and grilled bread completed the plate. I would order it again in a heartbeat.
The Ozzy-brined half chicken, not so much. This was a dish that I had coveted - mainly because the sides of soft polenta, brussels sprouts cooked with sliced chestnuts and bacon, and caramelized onions sounded so good. Someone else ordered it first. It turned out not to be as wonderful as it sounded: The breast meat was quite dry, even though the chicken half had been cut into quarters so the dark meat could have been cooked longer on its own. Still, the house beer (Ozzy) added a delectable flavor to the meat.
I couldn't have been happier with my ravioli stuffed with butternut squash puree. Pear added a delicate sweetness to the dish, sliced chestnuts and a bourbon cream sauce gave it the richness and texture it cried out for.
The Brewer's Art has a talented pastry chef, and desserts are made in-house. They seem to be seasonal as well - at least there was a very fine free-form apple and dried apricot tart. But if the chocolate goat cheese cheesecake is on the dessert menu, order it. The goat cheese adds a faint tang and it has an extra creamy texture.
The restaurant is located in a handsome Mount Vernon townhouse, with high ceilings and beautiful woodwork. But it gives off a funky vibe - partly because of the party scene in the bar, partly because it's like an incomplete stage setting. For instance, the only books in the built-in shelves near us were a set of the World Book that could have been bought at a used bookstore. There are no rugs or other fabric to dampen noise except for the white tablecloths. The fireplaces are drafty.
The Brewer's Art wait staff gets the job done and the people are very friendly, but their youth reinforces the feeling that this handsome restaurant with fine-dining aspirations is also a college hangout. It's an unusual mix.
brewer's art Address: 1106 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open for dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$11; entrees, $18-$26.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
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