The Arthouse Pizza Bar and Gallery may be the ultimate Hampden eatery: It encapsulates what's great about the funky neighborhood — and what can be annoying.
A deep, narrow building with a rough urban vibe including brick walls, weathered wood and vibrant, expressionist paintings by local artists? Great. But wait staff who seem a little too cool for their own good? Annoying.
Fortunately, the tiebreaker goes to great. The Arthouse's thoughtful, casual food looks and tastes good enough to forgive an hourlong wait for appetizers.
While the wait staff might have been blase about their mistakes — there was no explanation or apology for the delay — the kitchen's care and attention to detail countered that indifference. The menu at the Arthouse is brief: salads, a few snacks, a handful of pizzas. But each is thoughtfully conceived and well executed.
A salad of roasted butternut squash, bacon and ricotta tossed with romaine lettuce and champagne vinaigrette was surprisingly light and bright; the ricotta gave the salad an almost fluffy texture that really worked. A thick slice of country pate with mustard on toast would have been better if either the bread or the pate was a little softer, but we couldn't fault its creamy flavor.
And a trio of deviled eggs — one pickled pink with beet juice and topped with salmon roe, one with cured salmon and a third with crab and sriracha — was as artistic as any painting on the walls. They were almost too pretty to eat (but we got over that, and they were fabulous).
The kitchen at the Arthouse is wide open, exposed at the back of the restaurant, with a brick pizza oven as its central feature. The oven turns out excellent pizzas — the crust is light and airy with charred spots here and there. A leek, cherry pepper, garlic and mozzarella pie was fresh and fragrant, with just enough heat.
The escargot-topped pizza, which combined snails with a garlic beurre blanc and fresh arugula, was slightly less successful. Nothing was specifically wrong with it, but the escargots got lost under all the greens; we like our gastropods to be more prominent.
For dessert, a lemony, thyme-infused creme brulee was citrusy and sweet. The herb added some sophistication without overpowering the custard; the mix was interesting but not overly cerebral. No overthinking here.
When the Arthouse opened in 2010, it was a gallery only, though owner Joan Dolina always wanted to add a cafe. Partnering with Priya Rayadurg and Randy Shayotovich, owners of local clothing boutique chain Cloud 9, made that possible. Dolina closed the gallery to renovate and add a kitchen, and reopened in early October.
With a long bar along one side and tables nestled together on the other, the Arthouse is cozy, convivial and fun.
Some of the unfortunate service might be attributed to bad luck. The restaurant was crowded when we arrived; we grabbed one of the last open tables. There seemed to be some confusion about who would wait on us — and in the end, two different waiters took turns taking our orders and delivering drinks. Maybe their signals got crossed when it came to putting our order in the system.
Fortunately, all of that happened after we got our first round of drinks. Right now, the Arthouse serves beer and wine; a full bar is planned. The restaurant will also open an additional dining area on the second floor. For now, the mix of local beers and smart wines works. We were equally pleased with the Victory Prima Pils, a pilsner from Downingtown, Pa., a red blend from Chateau Vaugelas in southern France and another red blend, the chocolatey, smooth Aptus from Spain.
Once our food was finally in the system, it arrived quickly, with courses overlapping. But at that point, we were just happy it was on the table; our table neighbors finished snacks, pizza and an after-dinner drink before we got started on the deviled eggs.
Service glitches happen — we get that, especially in the first few weeks of a restaurant's life. And the food at the Arthouse is good enough to warrant quite a bit of leeway. Still, an apology or even acknowledgment of the service problem would have been nice.
Instead, the impression we got was one of indifference. Maybe that's not the case across the board — we did see a few warm welcomes and some chattier wait staff.
Even if the service is sometimes aloof, the kitchen is anything but apathetic. The staff in the back cares about the food — its quality and creativity. And it shows.
The Sun's restaurant critic, Richard Gorelick, will return next week.
The Arthouse Pizza Bar and Gallery
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 1115 West 36th Street, Hampden
Contact: 443-438-7700; facebook.com/TheArthouseBaltimore
Open: Lunch, dinner and late night Tuesday through Sunday; closed on Monday
Prices: Appetizers and salads $5-$8; pizzas $12-$17
Food: Salads, snacks and wood-fired pizzas
Service: Uneven and somewhat aloof
Parking/accessibility: Street parking
Children: Kids' menu including standards like pasta and chicken tenders.
Noise level: Moderate to loud; two televisions are off during dinner service but on for Ravens and international soccer games.
Dress code: No dress code; most guests wear casual attire
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]