Unless you've been held hostage in a Loire Valley vineyard for the past several years, you're aware that beer these days enjoys much of the cachet that used to belong only to wine. Indeed, boutique breweries abound on these shores, and it could almost be said that beer has achieved much the same snob appeal that wine enjoyed for centuries.
The phenomenon has myriad adherents and has undoubtedly increased the sales of beer exponentially, arguably without really harming vintners' bottom lines, either.
A relatively recent purveyor of its own microbrews, as well as numerous others, is The Ale House, on Dobbin Road in Columbia. The two-year-old younger sibling of the Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore draws a regular crowd bent on enjoying its wide selection of house beers (we counted 17 on one menu we saw.) These are billed as Oliver Ales and brewed at the Pratt Street location, we're told. And there are dozens and dozens of other brewers' craft beers also on tap and in bottles, including seven gluten-free offerings and an oft-changing menu of "guest" brews.
It's important to note, however, that The Ale House in Columbia also has a creative kitchen, so you can enjoy the "comfortably contemporary" ambiance (as general manager John Linderman terms it) even if your beverage preferences run to wine, mixed drinks or even water.
The Ale House boasts 230 seats and employs about 100 full- and part-time workers. The space itself bears little resemblance to previous inhabitants, most recently Rocky Run Tap and Grill. The space is well arranged to create the feeling of several dining rooms in the large building.
Near the largest bar, an entire wall is devoted to televisions. In other areas of the restaurant, we liked that individual tables were well-spaced and roomy.
What we enjoyed most on our recent visit was the fact that executive chef Mike Urquardt has come up with a menu of pub-type food that he has tweaked to provide unexpected touches for the types of fare — both "traditional" and "nouveau" — that you expect in a place that doesn't even have the word "grill" in its name.
Thus, Buffalo shrimp replace Buffalo wings as an appetizer, while chicken wings are prepared with honey and sriracha pepper. Your grilled cheese (fontina) can be layered with slow-roasted duck and served on a brioche, and your Cobb salad (enjoyed on a previous visit) becomes a Seafood Cobb salad, boasting lump crab and salmon along with the usual ingredients.
If you're seeking comfort food, The Ale House menu has much to offer: macaroni and cheese, for instance, either straight up or stirred together with a selection of nine different additives, like lobster, andouille sausage, short ribs, maple bacon or lump crab.
Prices can seem a mite on the high side here, but portions are ample, sometimes affording enough to take home.
We started on the Brewhouse Pretzel ($8.99), which featured two large, warm, glossy pretzels that had been sprinkled with herbs and salt. (The salt grinder in the kitchen must be quite large and quite popular since it was well-used — arguably overused — on a number of our dishes.) Accompanying the pretzels were a pair of yummy dunks — a creamy, mildly tangy "blond" ale fondue and a nicely balanced "pale ale" mustard. The pretzels themselves were good-looking but bland, so when the two dunks ran out, it was easy to lose interest.
Grilled Honey Sriracha Wings ($9.99) included eight lean wing segments that had been glazed in honey and spices, sprinkled with sesame seeds and accompanied by a prosaic blue cheese dunk. Tex Mex Rolls ($8.99) featured a pair of plump, lightly crisped pockets filled with a nicely balanced combination of tender spiced chicken, black beans, peppers, onions and tomatoes, set on a bed of shredded red cabbage and sided by a mild avocado cream. Welcome flavors, nice textures.
Two of us couldn't resist ordering up a couple of Ale House versions of classic pub favorites, the kind that serve as entrees either for a gut-stuffing lunch or a "reasonably sized" dinner.
Pratt Street Fish and Chips, for instance. This version ($14.99) was everything one expects, only better. Plenty of haddock (rather than cod, thank goodness), beer-battered (it's a tempuralike coating), then perfectly deep-fried, so the fish was flaky (but not too), juicy and tender. On the side came plenty of creamy cole slaw and virtually perfect hot, crisp seasoned fries.
Another fish dish from the entrée section was Mustard-Crusted Salmon ($19.99). The thick cut of salmon was coated lightly with mustard and herbs, then broiled to a tender, juicy finish. The fish was a treat in itself, but more so because it had been set on a bed of crisp-tender diced veggies, including yellow bell peppers, corn and pencil-thin asparagus.
Our traditionalist couldn't resist ordering up one of the Ale House's six burgers. As befits today's dietary concerns, only three of the burgers feature beef, while turkey, ahi tuna, and bratwurst fill out the choices.
On a previous visit, the classic bacon cheeseburger (with blue cheese) had been a huge hit (both size-wise and taste-wise). This time, it was the Fried Egg Burger ($12.99) that caught our attention. The "house blend" ground beef had been grilled, layered with maple-cured bacon and American cheese, then topped with an over-easy fried egg and served open-face on a large, fresh, tender brioche bun. The combination of flavors and textures was most welcome, the egg adding its own pleasing personality to an otherwise good, but rather predictable, sandwich.
Imagine: All that good food, with some to take home. And only one of us quaffed a beer. Conclusion: Even non-oenophiles and non-beer aficionados will be well-served by spending some time at The Ale House, Columbia. We're a little late with our "welcome" for this addition to the local restaurant scene, but our welcome is sincere indeed.
The Ale House
Center Way, Columbia