I'm not really a beer drinker, says one of my dining companions.
Let me see if I can change your mind, replies Dion, our charming server at Wet City (223 W. Chase St,  873-6699, wetcitybrewing.com). Which he did, after quizzing my friend briefly on what flavors she found appealing (she affirmed citrus) and bringing several samples of brews that no one would categorize as ordinary. The winner was Cuvee Freddy, an almost silky sour from the Flemish Picobrouwerij Alvinne, its texture (and punch) a result of a year's aging in wine barrels before being blended with stout. My friend was converted—at least for an evening.
It is tasting experiences like this that make Wet City a welcome addition to the growing trend of bars and restaurants offering provocative and unusual beers (many often available in limited quantities). Wet City's twenty tap selections change regularly at the taste and whim of owners (and brothers) PJ and Josh Sullivan resulting in a highly esoteric and downright exciting tap choices. Italian sours (I can't remember a time that I've typed those two words together) rub shoulders with Russian Imperial Stouts and session IPAs with Swedish pale ales. Sampling is encouraged, and the wait staff knows their stuff. And if you absolutely can't be convinced to give beer a try, know that the bar still has wine and a half a dozen or so cocktails to wet your whistle.
Opened in July in the old Dougherty's Pub space on the truncated block of Chase Street across from the Rite-Aid, Wet City pulls its markedly under-35 crowd into a long narrow space separated into two general areas. The bar hugs one spare white wall, and blonde tables that would not be out of place in IKEA populate the other side of the room. The place could feel cold If the service wasn't so welcoming or the room wasn't teeming with patrons. Although we had our choice of tables a few minutes before 7 p.m. on a weekday evening, the dining room filled up quickly and stayed crowded until well after 9 p.m. when bar patrons turned their attention away from each other and towards televisions showing NFL and NBA games.
Beer is clearly Wet City's strength (and what you should expect for an establishment that calls itself after Baltimore's resistant stance during Prohibition), and the quality of the tap list sets a high bar for the food menu—which aims big, but falls somewhat short. Take popcorn carbonara ($4), for example. In this intriguing premise for an appetizer, popcorn plays the role of pasta in a takeoff on the classic dish of spaghetti tossed with bacon, egg, and parmesan. But instead of breaking an egg over the hot popcorn and using that as a binder for the other ingredients, Wet City's version is a bowl of popcorn tumbled with bits of bacon, a dusting of cheese, and topped with a fried egg. We were given a spoon to break up the egg and mix it with the popcorn, but although the egg yolk was slightly runny, the white was hard, which only added another strange texture to the mix. Then there's the conundrum of how to best eat the results. Our not very successful strategy was with hands, with the occasional stab of the fork for some egg. Meh.
Wet City offers both entrees and sandwiches, and somehow we ended up with only the former. I wish we had tried the latter (the menu offers a burger, banh mi, and a version of Nashville hot chicken among a half dozen offerings) because a more casual approach to food seems more appropriate to the space, the aesthetic, and the sound system on steroids that required shouting to make oneself half-heard.
The strongest of the three entrees we tried shows the kitchen's able hand with frying: the four shrimp served over achingly rich grits marbled with kale ($17) were as crisp as potato chips. I just wish there had been a few more of them. Although Dion warned us that the "crispy rockfish" ($16) would not, in fact, be crispy, and that only the accompanying fingerling potatoes would be tempura fried, we were still disappointed (the power of words, sigh). A more apt description would be unadorned fillet of rockfish with fried potatoes and roasted carrots. If this sounds somewhat less exciting, well, the vegetables were lovely. The same goes for a plate of braised beef short ribs ($17) where the tangy brussels sprout kimchi and blood orange glaze gave some zip to meat that could have used a shorter braise. The shortcomings may be the result of an overambitious menu or trying to do too much too soon, but Wet City is doing their bar program so well, that I hope the food can find its footing, too.
In a recent Facebook post urging patrons to use the bar as a maker space, art venue, or happy hour social for creative types, Wet City wrote: "We'd like to think of our space as a hub of experimentation, discovery, and creativity." A first visit confirms this, and I'm looking forward to the second sip.