Restaurant Review: Heavy Seas Alehouse takes a winning tack
At new Little Italy restaurant, drink and food menus are buoyed by beer
Heavy Seas Alehouse (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo / March 21, 2012)
There is the understated, comfortable decor, mercifully free of pirate paraphernalia. (Frankly, I was worried about that.) The smartly conceived menu from executive chef Matt Seeber is instantly appealing and accessible, and is being executed with impressive confidence. The front-of-house staff is welcoming and impressively trained. They're fully on board with this new project, and their pride comes through.
Heavy Seas Alehouse takes its name from the popular line of beers by Maryland's Clipper City Brewing Co., whose founder, Hugh Sisson, is the godfather of this area's microbrew movement. Sisson has no direct involvement in this project, but it has his blessing.
The most admirable thing about Heavy Seas Alehouse is how well it plays to both the beer expert and those indifferent to beer. Fans of Heavy Seas will find no fewer than eight brews on tap — and two on "cask" — on any given night, along with a bracing selection of beer-laced cocktails, like the rich and hearty Lost Cargo, made with Heavy Seas Peg Leg Stout, bourbon, port and bitters.
Heavy Seas beers have been craftily worked into the pub menu, too, from the Loose Cannon in the onion-ring batter to the Peg Leg glaze on the 24-hour beef short ribs to the Marzen jus that accompanies the roasted free-range chicken. Later, there's a terrific ginger stout cake served with Peg Leg whipped cream. Even the delicious bread and sandwich rolls are baked in part with Heavy Seas spent grain, a byproduct of the brewing process.
But none of this feels forced or arbitrary — it feels like a chef fully engaged in exploring the possibilities and potentials of flavoring with beer. Seeber, whose most recent position was at Craftsteak, a Tom Collichio restaurant in Las Vegas, doesn't pour beer where it's not wanted.
The everyday Heavy Seas menu is not so much playing it safe as playing it smart. Diners are getting to know, and to depend on, a solid lineup of menu items that a new kitchen is able to deliver with consistent results. Seeber has also had time to fix the few things that weren't working. The menu's original braised pork belly appetizer, which was confusingly paired with a slice of crab toast, has been replaced by a tempura version, five luscious nuggets ready for dipping in a tomato-maple sauce.
Other things arrived on the opening menu fully formed and have stayed that way. Don't miss the appetizer of sausage sliders. Formed from good Roma sausage and given a boost of flavor from a Heavy Seas pilsener, the plump, savory patties are dressed with a red cabbage slaw and pickles and served on toasted spent-grain rolls. They're juicy little wonders.
The roasted chicken entree exemplifies Seeber's restrained approach. There are no gimmicks here, just handsomely presented and patiently prepared pieces of flavorful chicken, served with sauteed kale and a pretty white bean and tomato casserole. An entree of stout-glazed 24-hour short ribs, served with roasted turnips and pickled red onions, is similarly effective and flavor-focused.
These are approachable dishes that feel right at home in this gleaming pub. When Seeber decides to push things a little bit, it's with side dishes like a puree of celery root and Yukon Gold potatoes, or a full-on risotto made from coarse farro grain and muscled up with pork confit and portabello. Keep your eyes on the specials, too. For his terrific sauteed skate preparation, Seeber dispensed brightening grapefruit, tomato, capers and fresh herbs. The skate, served with sauteed asparagus, was a midweek special, and a tantalizing taste of how far Seeber can take diners.
There are treats everywhere, like the arousing smoked mussel salad from the well-tended raw bar; the house salad, composed of locally grown baby lettuces, tossed with shaved fennel, hazelnuts and blood oranges; and a dandy Angus beef hamburger topped with Stilton cheese and stout-flavored onions.
Attention is paid to dessert, too. Try the Pimlico Pie, a regional version on the pecan pie, served with black cardamom gelato from nearby Pitango, or the creme brulee flavored with Earl Grey tea.
But the best treat of all, and on their own a reason for going to Heavy Seas, is the onion rings. Big, golden and crunchy, every one perfect thing, glistening in a savory batter of buttermilk, whole-grain Dijon mustard and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon beer. They're a triumph. And when a restaurant lavishes so much care and attention on the small things, you can bet it's getting the big things right, too.
Already, Heavy Seas has become a destination restaurant, something never remotely achieved by its predecessors in the space, Tsunami and Diablita. The previous tenants were such resounding failures that people started to wonder about the location, just on the outskirts of the Harbor East development.
It turns out it wasn't the location. Everything about the warehouse setting — the whitewashed walls, dark wood, black trim and industrial proportions — seems purposefully to evoke both shipbuilding and brewing. Aside from some painting and polishing, Heavy Seas Alehouse looks pretty much the same as it did when it was Diablita. (One thing needs fixing: The murky sound system sounds waterlogged.)
The difference is that Heavy Seas is confidently inhabiting the space. The space will continue to grow, too. The front area is where the crowd wants to be, but there are quieter dining spaces, including an enclosed back room with a smaller back bar. An enclosed beer garden will be coming soon, too.
People love it here, you can tell. There's not a pandering moment at Heavy Seas Alehouse. Neither is there a lazy reliance on glib gastro-trends. Instead, Heavy Seas Alehouse is attracting diners by serving a quality product. Good thinking.