If you are having trouble generating fond feelings toward bankers — say you hold them responsible for the nation's financial meltdown and the subsequent mortgage mess — you should visit Alewife, a tavern in downtown Baltimore that once was a bank.
This former countinghouse now serves beer. Lots of very good beer: Forty beers on tap and 100 in bottles. If you sit in the back room next to the old vault, as I did, and have tall Victory Prima Pils ($5.50) and nibble on the smoked tomato and goat cheese flan appetizer ($10), you feel prosperous. You might, with help of another beer, be able to put the nation's financial woes behind you and move on to a main course.
A good choice would be the braised oxtail ($15). The bit of bony beef is slowly cooked in a chocolate stout (Young's Double, to be specific), which gives it distinctive and pleasing sweet notes. The kitchen has carefully removed the meat from the bone — the ox from the tail, if you will — and placed it in an artful array around a potato croquette. Topping all this are handmade shoestring onions, thinly sliced, packing a delightful pungency. This is a dish whose rich flavors reminded me of dishes I enjoyed in the pubs of Ireland — although these days, with the dire straits of Ireland's financial houses, you don't want to mention Ireland in any building associated with banking.
Long ago, this structure at Eutaw and Fayette streets served as the Eutaw Savings Bank. Alewife is the third eating and drinking establishment to occupy the space. The others were Maggie Moore's and Lucy's Irish Pub.
Touches of the old bank architecture, such as the vault, remain. Another nice feature is that the bank's former front door has been transformed into a window. Customers can sit at a table by the glassed-in entrance and watch the world of Eutaw Street go by. On nights when there is a performance at the Hippodrome Theatre, right across Eutaw Street, the foot traffic could be heavy. On the weeknight my wife and I were there, the theater was dark and the sidewalk action negligible.
Still another reminder of the days when local bankers ruled was an old map of Baltimore and Baltimore County, which hung on the wall of the back dining room. The map was undated, and rather than using street numbers, it identified homes by the names of their owners. So, for instance, the Brookland Wood (as it was written) mansion in Baltimore County that is now part of St. Paul's School was identified here as the home of Alexander Brown, one of the city's leading merchants and first investment bankers.
Not everything about the food was perfect. The seared crab cake appetizer ($15), with smoked bacon cream, blistered corn salsa and porkskin dust, sounded more exotic than it tasted. The Cubano ($12) sandwich, a pork loin matched with Virginia ham, Swiss cheese and mustard pickle relish, was pleasing, if not exciting. And the only offering for dessert, a pumpkin bread pudding ($6), was more bready than dessert-like.
Still, that flan appetizer, made with Montrachet goat cheese and served over two plump, flavorful heirloom tomatoes — no small feat in November — was superb. That flan and the braised oxtail, you could take to the bank.
Where: 21 N. Eutaw St.
Contact: 410-545-5112, alewifebaltimore.com
Hours: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.- 2 a.m. Friday, noon- 2 a.m. Saturday, noon-1 a.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: American Express, Discover, Master Card, Visa