In the 19th century, investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons helped finance the B&O railroad, Baltimore Gas and Electric, and other engines of economic growth. With the new Alexander Brown Restaurant in the bank’s former headquarters downtown, Brown’s descendants are hoping to put their family name back on the map.
They’re off to a promising start.
We weren’t there the day the building first opened in 1901, but we feel confident in saying the inside has never looked better. Stately new furnishings complement the ornate marble bones. Plush velvet banquettes offer comfortable seating, and carefully selected paintings bring the walls to life. The restaurant features multiple dining rooms, each with its own old-money flavor. There are no bad seats, but the best are beneath the grand Tiffany-style dome in the main dining room. It draws the eyes skyward during lulls in conversation.
Chef Andrew Fontaine comes to Baltimore with a playful approach to fine dining after six years at various establishments in California’s Napa Valley. Fontaine refused to include a crab cake on the menu — what he says is a losing battle in a town like Baltimore, where every diner has a preconceived notion of what a crab cake should be. Instead, he created a crab beignet. As airy and crispy as the ones at New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde, but stuffed with crab, they offer a playful take on tradition.
Our favorite items were not the heavy comfort foods but the fresh, subtle flavors one might associate with northern Californian cuisine. A mixed garden salad delighted with its vibrant colors, a purple carrot and puffed cheese. A duck breast entree balanced the fatty meat with the crunch of bok choi and the delicately flavored congee beneath it. Pastry chef Caitlin Kiehl takes over for dessert, and her lavender panna cotta served with candied kumquats surprised and pleased with its unusual flavorings.
There were some misses. The scallops, though gorgeously presented and Instagram-ready with pink foam, needed more seasoning. A cream cheese mousse served with candied rhubarb and strawberry shortbread was unremarkable.
Should you be reluctant to commit to dinner, test the waters with lunch, brunch or bar snacks and a cocktail. The menus accommodate many different budgets. Lunchtime guests can order $15 falafel, while dinner guests can gorge on Wagyu beef accompanied by tater tots, $175 for two people. At the bar, order a gourmet version of the chicken box for a mere $5, or perhaps some Ossetra caviar with a deviled quail egg for $35.
The drink menu offers a selection of craft cocktails like the 1904, whose bright orange hue is meant to allude to the Great Fire of that year. The blaze destroyed most of downtown Baltimore, but the Alexander Brown building, then just three years old, miraculously survived. The drink, which combines mezcal, aperol and chili liqueur, was smoky and spicy without being too sweet.
A comprehensive wine list is heavy on European bottles, well-suited to the menu, and with numbers that allow diners to forego the embarrassment of mispronunciation. I requested a mocktail and received a refreshing lemon strawberry concoction in a champagne glass. Ceremony Coffee is is available with dessert.
Our server seemed to genuinely care whether or not we liked the food. A hostess welcomed us immediately after we stepped inside and gave a sincere thanks when we left. The check came with a sweet assortment of mini macarons, chocolates and pâte de fruits. Graceful touches like that make a customer want to come back again.
“The A.B.” can be a bit hard to find if you’re not already familiar with it. Only a discreet sign above the door indicates what lies on other side of its glass doors. The bathroom, located downstairs, might require a treasure map to find. For some, the hunt may be part of the appeal.
There is no shortage of good places to eat in downtown these days, and competition will become even more stiff as a number of restaurants are set to open along the nearby Inner Harbor. For now, diners can bank on a satisfying meal in a jaw-dropping setting at the Alexander Brown Restaurant — the kind of place where you can lean back in a leather chair, sip a drink and pretend to be a Gilded Age railroad tycoon.
The Alexander Brown Restaurant
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 135 E. Baltimore St., downtown
Contact: 443-438-4540, alexanderbrownrestaurant.com
Open: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $12 to $25; Entrees $25 to $175 (for two)
Food: Approachable fine dining
Noise/TVs: No televisions; conversation is easy.
Service: Friendly and knowledgeable staff (and the free macarons with the check were a nice touch).
Parking: Garage and valet
Special diets: Can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]