When a longtime, respected restaurant brings on a new chef, people pay attention — or at least I do.
The Brewer's Art has been a staple in Mount Vernon since 1996, and the restaurant, which brews its own Belgian-style beers, has a couple of personalities: a moody, fun bar in the basement and an elegant lounge and chalet-like dining rooms upstairs.
Under chef Ray Kumm, the menu leaned toward a New American menu with European influences. When he decided to move out of state this year, Andrew Weinzirl took over the kitchen.
Weinzirl, who grew up in Carroll County, is no stranger to local restaurants. An externship at Linwoods in Owings Mills set him on a path of fine dining while he was studying at the former Baltimore International College.
During his cooking career, the former owner and chef at Maggie's Farm in Lauraville has tied on an apron at Wine Market Bistro, the former Dogwood restaurant and Le Garage. Since February, he's been tweaking the menu at Brewer's Art.
"There was a good staff in place," he said. "It was the easiest transition."
Weinzirl is working to make the menu his own. "It's really important for me to use quality ingredients and bump up local purveyors," he said.
That initiative led him to South Carolina's Geechie Boy Mill (a vendor at the recent Emporiyum) for the grain farro and a Hagerstown farm for rabbit when it's available.
He also promotes the restaurant's housemade pasta program. Recently, ramp-top spaghetti was offered with beef-heart meatballs from Monkton-based Roseda Farm, porcini mushrooms, pecorino cheese and pickled ramps. The pasta du jour is always changing.
Even at this early stage, a confident Weinzirl seems to have found a groove at his new professional home.
We devoured a Scotch duck egg appetizer. Two crispy nests of merguez sausage firmly grasped a half of a duck egg, glistening with golden-yellow yolk. The dish was further feathered by bright pea greens, pickled Vidalia onions and a spicy mayonnaise sauce.
The featured charcuterie outshined any deli mortadella I've had. The thin rounds of spicy bologna were embellished with cornichon slices, arugula and zigzags of garlicky pistachio sauce and olive oil.
We also became fans of the Oscar salad, Weinzirl's take on a Waldorf salad. (It's named after the Waldorf's originator, Oscar Tschirky.) This mound of green goodness didn't remind us of the classic salad, but it was really good, featuring local lettuces, succulent duck confit, walnuts, roasted grapes and celery leaves, all slicked with a lovely but understated violet mustard dressing.
If you're a beer lover, you've found just the right spot. Brewer's acclaimed brews include favorites such as Resurrection, Birdhouse, Beazly and many other creations. Wine drinkers are acknowledged with a small but carefully curated selection.
The restaurant doesn't slack on whiskeys. Bottles of the liquor are lined up like stalwart soldiers on the lounge's gorgeous marble fireplace mantel.
Like the previous chef, Weinzirl has kept game entries on the menu. The meats suit the ambience of the dining room.
"It looks like a lodge in Germany," Weinzirl said. "It's an easy sell."
Amid the wood-accented walls, artwork and shelves of books, eating elk and rabbit does seem appropriate.
We enjoyed a meaty rabbit leg braised in hard cider that was draped over an intriguing parsnip-and-pear puree and a mound of grassy farro. A thick brown gravy gave it flavor and sheen.
There's always a danger of overcooking a lean meat like elk, but Brewer's grilled loin was tender and flavorful and was boosted by soft, green-garlic polenta, rutabaga and wild mushrooms.
We were impressed by the schnitzel treatment of the Point Judith skate. The sweet, firm fish was breaded and fried for a treat. Capers, fried anchovies and a piquant cucumber salad were complementary companions.
The chocolate Proletary torte has been on the menu for as long as I can remember, and I'm glad the new chef hasn't toyed with it. The dense wedge with a hint of ale is a chocolate lover's satisfying end.
A vanilla-bean cheesecake was boosted by a lush topping of housemade apricot-port jam. A caramelized banana pudding, dotted with gooey bananas, was a great finish to a hearty dinner.
The nostalgic dessert worked well with the milk-chocolate, vanilla-salt cookies, nestled next to the bowl of pudding. It sets off all kinds of childhood memories.
Faithful Brewer's Art fans can relax. Weinzirl is a steady hand in the kitchen. The brews may get a lot of attention, but the food is every bit as assertive.