Ever Wake Up in Pennsylvania After Too Many Resurrection Ales and Wonder, What Kind of Food Do They Serve Upstairs at That Restaurant?
The Brewer's Art occupies the two levels just above and below ground level of a stupendous Mount Vernon townhouse. The dark rathskeller space downstairs, with its labyrinthine niches and frequently deafening music, has attracted a large, loyal, and hip following with its homemade Belgian-style beers (think high-alcohol content) and gracious clubbiness. A light-fare menu is available down here and at the more stately (but still buzzing) front bar upstairs, highlighted by a nifty little cheese pizza ($9.50) with duck confit, apples, and caramelized onions and the Brewer's burger, a decent version that serves primarily as a vehicle for the establishment's perfecto french fries, tender little shoestrings seasoned with rosemary and garlic.
The upper level's dining rooms have been turned over, rather recently, to chef Ravi Narayanan, who has created a menu that rises to any occasion suggested by the townhouse's high ceilings, dusky lighting, and formal furnishings. "Relaxed elegance" doesn't fairly describe what's going on here; it's more "heightened informality"--the menu is ambitious, even serious, but there's a refreshing absence of stuffiness. Maybe there's the faintest whiff of arrogance wafting out of the kitchen, but we have a soft spot for preening chefs with townhouse-sized egos.
Brewer's Art offers, on some evenings, a $55 five-course tasting menu ($68 with paired wines), and on a recent visit, my party happened to include an adventurous (and, let's face it, solvent) diner who opted to try it. How much good sense the Brewer's Art's idiosyncratic approach to the tasting menu--namely, withholding, until the end of the meal, the naming of the courses (the waitstaff is forbidden from disclosing anything; they themselves claim complete ignorance)--was a subject of heated debate at our table. I lie. The only matter of debate was how to storm the kitchen and throttle the information out of Narayanan. Maybe you can drop a spoonful of soup on your tongue and declare "What a lovely pheasant consommé with brunoise aromatics and black truffle shavings," but we're slow and need some prompting. And who but a foodie would enjoy trying to guess at the component parts of alien dishes? I hasten to add here that each course of the tasting menu was gorgeous and toothsome, most memorably a second-course galantine of rockfish and poached garlic clove and a third-course halibut medallion wrapped in Ardennes ham.
Among the appetizers the rest of our table tried, we favored most the crab cake ($10), served in a peppery rice flour shell with a plummy dollop of tomato jam. It was the first crab cake my young companion, a Midwesterner, ever tasted, and now he's spoiled. The Brewer's Art's plateau royale ($14) is described as a chilled "display" of seafood, and that's the right word--oysters, crab claws, shrimp, and mussels, all fresh, well-handled, and adroitly arranged in a knockout presentation. A hot iron skillet of escargot with sausage and tomato ($10) was a hearty, rustic success, its rosemary jus delicious when greedily mopped up with chewy, crusty bread (from Bonaparte Bakery). On the daintier side, a prettily plated cauliflower essence ($7) with roasted summer morels and black truffle vinaigrette rewarded more precise, careful tasting.
The Midwesterner lucked out with his entrée, too--steak frites ($22). A beautiful cut of boneless sirloin steak was accompanied by those terrific fries and a mellow shallot red wine sauce. Two fish dishes--a grilled fillet of halibut ($22) and a pan-seared rockfish ($19)--were given somewhat elaborate treatment, mostly with success; the onion-and-olive "crouton" served with the rockfish was a little baffling.
The Brewer's Art's debt to Belgium is acknowledged with a waterzooi entrée ($18), a creamy, herb stew with vegetables and poached poussin (young chicken). I liked this less than my companions (there's a reason why there aren't many successful international waterzooi chain restaurants), but the chicken was tender (the dish is more traditionally made with fish), and I appreciate the sentiment (Belgium is, we're fond of pointing out, roughly the size of Maryland) behind its inclusion.
Kim Farmer is the restaurant's talented and inventive pastry chef. She puts together a delightful lavender and almond cake with lavender ice cream, served with a plum and blackberry compote, and chocolate lovers will adore the chocolate crème brúlée. I thought a coconut milk sorbet topping a tart lemon confit was her masterpiece (all desserts, $7).
Waterzooi on the brain: firstname.lastname@example.org.