"Our chef is amazing."
Checking on our table between appetizers and entrees, our waitress waxed poetic about chef Cyrus Keefer, the culinary force behind 1542 Gastropub in Federal Hill. She was nearly gushing, but she was also right: Keefer's food is top-notch. It's creative, interesting and expertly executed — a welcome addition to the Federal Hill food scene.
1542 Gastropub, owned by Sean White and Andrew Dunlap, opened in March as the new incarnation of the duo's former spot, The Reserve. When White and Dunlap joined forces with Keefer, they decided to make a fresh start: a new menu, new name, redecorated interior and a fresh coat of paint on the outside. The Reserve was also billed as a "gastropub," but 1542 isn't a feeble attempt at a makeover; it feels like a new venture.
The 1542 decor is pure pub — exposed brick, dark wood, chalkboards everywhere, plus, of course, an enormous bar. On a recent Thursday night, the bar was about half-full and the dining room was nearly empty. Considering the quality of the food, those vacant tables are likely to fill up quickly.
The beer and wine lists at 1542 were fairly long, but the cocktail list was on the short side. Later, over the phone, Keefer explained that the wine list might shrink, but the drinks list will grow. White and Dunlap have hired former B&O Brasserie manager, Erich Stumpe, as general manager, and Baltimore's go-to bartending superhero, Brendan Dorr to consult. Stumpe will streamline the wine selection while Dorr revamps the cocktail list.
Soon, Keefer said, the bar staff at 1542 will be shaking up drinks with juices, simple syrups and bitters made in-house. We enjoyed the Moscow Mule ($10), a summery combination of lime juice, ginger beer and vodka, and a wheaty Shock Top Belgian White ($3 during happy hour).
The menu at 1542 changes regularly; Keefer works with what's in season and what he can source locally. Many of the dishes involve adventurous combinations of ingredients, but the menu also includes bar-friendly fare, like wings and sliders, for diners interested in something more approachable.
We started with the wood-grilled octopus pizza ($10) — house-made pizza dough topped with cured lemon, finely chopped olives, spicy harissa, cucumber crema and octopus. The sauce was salt-lover heaven — briny, with just a bit of spice — and the thick chunks of octopus were so tender we could cut them with forks. Octopus is notoriously difficult to cook — it often ends up rubbery — but Keefer avoids this by slowly cooking it in barely simmering, seasoned water for a long time, before grilling to order.
The dish showed off Keefer's technical expertise and his skill with Mediterranean-influenced flavors. Over the phone, he explained that he's part Sicilian, and though he has experience with fare including French and Latin, at 1542, he's gravitating toward his rustic Italian roots. He's trying to stay simple in his food, he said, while creating something new, modern and flavorful. The octopus pizza fits that bill.
The spring onion waffle ($12), studded with scallions and topped with garlicky Boursin cheese, meaty escargots and a Madeira-truffle sauce, was listed under "snacks" but worked well as a small dinner. The combination of flavors and textures — creamy, sweet, earthy — was unusual, but it worked. Occasionally, the Boursin overpowered the other flavors, but when we took care to build each bite with the right ratio of cheese-to-waffle-to-snail, the dish was great.
The short-rib entree ($24) was another home run. Tender short ribs, bits of crispy beef coated with a sweet and spicy mixture of sambal paste, garlic and sugar, thick udon noodles, and an egg, floated in a slightly sweet broth made with bacon dashi (dashi is Japanese stock— it's also the base for miso soup). Like the other dishes, the dish successfully combined flavors and textures to create something new and satisfying.
Throughout the meal, we found ourselves chatting with our waitress, who was as friendly as she was enthusiastic about Keefer's culinary skills. She hadn't tried everything on the menu, but she answered our questions knowledgeably. When she didn't know the answer, she asked the chef.
Our waitress had another skill, too: She knew when to check on us and when to leave us alone. Overall, the timing of the meal was spot-on. The restaurant wasn't busy, but even a quiet night doesn't guarantee a well-paced meal, and that's what we had.
We wrapped up the evening with bread pudding ($5), a sticky and sweet combination of brioche, butterscotch and crispy walnut brittle. The pudding arrived in a Mason jar, which looked great, and fit with 1542's pubby vibe, but it was a pain to eat. We wanted to scrape up every crumb, but our spoon barely reached the bottom of the jar, leaving us with sticky hands.
Butterscotch fingers aside, dinner at 1542 Gastropub was impressive from start to finish. It's a restaurant for people who love food and for their less-adventurous friends, too. As we left the restaurant, our waitress said goodbye, adding, "Please tell your friends about us."
"We will," we replied. And now we have.
Back story: 1542 Gastropub, the new incarnation of Federal Hill's The Reserve, serves adventurous, creative fare with Mediterranean roots and locally sourced ingredients
Parking: Street parking and parking garage at 40 E. West St.
Signature dish: Adventurous seafood lovers should not miss the octopus pizza, which combines tender chunks of octopus with salty olives and spicy harissa.
Where: 1542 Light St.
Contact: 410-605-0955, 1542gastropub.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major credit cards
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]