Ellicott Mills eatery has a solid foundation of food and drink

You have to be in pretty good shape to make it up the myriad stairs leading to the main dining room at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company. But once there – above the din of the street level bar – you'll be glad you made the effort. The spacious 120-seat area is nicely laid out. That, and the menu, promise the opportunity to enjoy good food and conversation with your companions.

This historical building at 8308 Main Street is all brick and stone and hard wood, bespeaking the solid foundations upon which this 19th century mill and railroad town were built. The ceilings are very high in this room, painted black, but with exposed brick-orange industrial piping and burlap pennants hanging among them.

Where there's no brick, the walls are painted brick red, and hung with black-and-white photos and old magazine illustrations invoking the ambience that Ellicott City used to have, back when. In keeping with the "industrial" theme, bare-top tables are covered with sturdy copper. (Kudos to those on the staff who have to look after them.) And the tables boasts little votive lights, for additional ambience.

The "Brewing Company" part of this restaurant's name is no whimsy. Indeed, the 15-year-old establishment was the first (there are still only two) brew pub in the county. On tap every day are four regular beers brewed here. And four more that tend to reflect seasonal beer styles. Pumpkin ale, for instance, and a dark bock beer, right now. Come January and into the depths of winter, you'll be able to quaff Jack Frost beer or a sturdy stout.

Beer go-withs

Only one of our company wanted beer that recent Friday evening. Our server, knowledgeable, friendly and efficient, recommended the Marzen (put an umlaut over the "a") when he requested his usual Yuengling. He pronounced it a more-than-satisfactory substitute. There are signature Margaritas on the menu, too. Another of our number tried one — to good effect, if you will.

But of course, the four of us were more focused on the food. The menu here still features some of the dishes we remember from our last visit, at least a decade ago. Alligator as an appetizer. (Not bad, as we recall.) And venison steak as an entrée. But there have been changes as this brew pub has moved into the 21st century. So now, sesame ahi tuna appears in the "starter" section, along with pork potstickers and coconut shrimp. Plus a pulled pork or a grilled portabella among the sandwich selections. And for entrees, you'll find Brazilian rubbed salmon fillet and Creole penne pasta.

The menu is fairly complete in itself — that is, featuring something for just about any eating style. But there's also a separate hand-out titled "Chef's Selections," which changes weekly, and seasonally, and which allows executive chef (and part owner) Richard Winter to strut his stuff. On this particular evening, the soup du jour was crab and lobster chowder, while appetizers included oysters on the half shell and chicken quesadilla. Plus nine yummy sounding entrees and German chocolate cake for dessert.

In keeping with the season, sauerbraten was available, along with wild boar stew, a shrimp and, since this is Maryland after all, crab mac and cheese, and crab and shrimp etouffee.

As soon as you order, your server will bring out some chewy-tender French bread rolls and butter. So it behooves you to get decisive. Which we did.

The cup of crab and lobster "chowder" ($5), offered as a Chef's Selection was somewhat disappointing. Granted it had a semi-thick, relatively comforting, seafood flavored base, but this was more a bisque than a chowder, and contained very little seafood. In short, not the New England style "chowder," that we'd been expecting.

On the other hand, we also opted for the "classic" Buffalo wings ($6.99/8 sections), which were among the best we've tried in a while. Big, meaty, tender, moist, with just the right tang. (A "discussion ensued over whether the wings needed more spice; this taster didn't think so.) Served on leafy green lettuce, with a creamy, well-balanced blue cheese dunk.

A side salad ($3.50) served as an appetizer (one of our number was trying to lose weight before an impending trip). Ample, very fresh dark greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red cabbage, croutons (not house made) and blue cheese on the side.

Going "21st century," we also sampled pork potstickers ($9.99). Six large, homemade-looking dumplings were chock-a-block full of tender ground pork, veggies and scallions. Crisp, non-oily outside, hearty inside. With a perky Thai style sweet chili sauce for dunking.

Meat of the matter

Our dieter ordered the now-classic-most-everywhere Chesapeake chicken ($21.99) from the regular menu. A generous serving, this version featured a plump, moist boneless chicken breast topped with lump crab meat, which was laved with a sherry/Old Bay/cream sauce. The chicken was tender, the crab was lumpy and sweet, the sauce was on the scant side and didn't do enough to complement the other elements in the dish. (Ah well, this was our dieter, so the less sauce, the better.) Her side dish of garlic mashed red potatoes was pronounced "sturdy and comforting."

One traditionalist opted for a traditional pub favorite, baby back ribs ($19.99/full rack). The kitchen handled these very nicely. Meaty, tender, fall-off-the-bone finger food that had been marinated in beer, which imparted a mellow flavor to the ribs, coordinating well with the beer-infused barbecue sauce that was thickly applied at the finish. A housemade slaw was amply provided – crisp with cabbage and carrots, with a well-balanced tangy-creamy dressing.

Also from the regular menu we sampled the ribeye steak and crab cake combo ($19.99). The kitchen here must have a really good set of knives and someone who wields them with expertise. The rib eye steak couldn't have been more than one-fourth inch thick. And while it was properly cooked, and beefy tasting, and chewy-tender, its appearance didn't make much of an impression. The (small) crab cake, on the other hand, was lumpy, sweet, virtually filler free and could take its place among the "best" we've ever tried. Housemade fries were hot, crisp, tender, welcome.

The same knife wielder may have had his/her way with an item on the Chef's Selections hand-out. The ($20.99) wienerscnitzel (sic) comprised a pair of very, very thin pork cutlets that had been breaded and fried to golden tenderness. Now, wienerschnitzel — so-named because it allegedly originated in Vienna (Wien, to natives) — is traditionally made of veal, but in these PC days, we are all hesitant to serve or eat little baby beef, so… Anyway, although the serving was generous (two schnitzels), and the flavor impressively mild, perhaps the also-traditional habit of garnishing these cutlets with anchovies and a fried egg might make this offering more fun. Or the use of panko crumbs to make the cutlets a bit more crunchy. On the other hand, the schnitzels were served with lemon wedges, which is also traditional with this dish, one that's certain to please the — ah — least complicated eaters among us.

No dessert this evening. That diet, of course. But despite the fact that some of the dishes weren't quite what we had expected (and that's not the kitchen's fault), they were all tasty and there wasn't a whole lot of doggie bag booty to take home.

Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, (410-313-8141), 8308 Main St., Ellicott City. Great setting for a brew pub. Serving nicely conceived, well-executed food at relatively reasonable prices. Ample choices from regular menu and weekly Chef's Selections. Attractively served. Attentive, knowledgeable, patient, friendly service. Worth a visit, or more.

Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Reservations Sunday through Thursday for smaller groups. Friday and Saturday, reservations for six or more only. Special occasion opportunities in main dining room, and/or downstairs (below street level) in the rathskellar. Visit http://www.ellicottmillsbrewing.com

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