Go to Ellicott Mills for the Pub, Not the Grub
Microbrew mania is unquestionably one of the biggest trends of the '90s. Brewpubs are springing up just about everywhere to feed the public's endless appetite for boutique beers. The pilsners, stouts, and ales brewed up by such establishments are often quite good--but can anyone explain why the food served alongside the house raspberry-wheat-honey-double-extra-golden-hoppy-brau is so frequently substandard?
Sad to say, Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. falls prey to the good-beer/lamentable-chow brewpub dichotomy. Home of many '90s fads--cigars, single-malt scotches, South Park night (featuring, of all things in a microbrewery, Miller Lite specials. What's that all about?)--this place gets the beer right but drops the ball just about everywhere else, if my recent visit is indicative.
The highlight of the evening: pint glasses full of house brews ($3.50 each). We loved the Alpenhof Dunkel, an excellent, medium-bodied dark beer. This is one of the smoothest microbrews we've ever sampled--velvety and slightly sweet, with a luscious "nose" of burned sugar. The Helles brew was also extremely enjoyable--a light, golden yeasty brew perfect for summer weather. But the Maerzen was a disappointment--the beer I was served tasted sour and slightly off, as though it had been sitting around for a long time. It was, in a word, skanky, and it sat on the table for the rest of the evening.
Ellicott Mills offers an ambitious and interesting menu of appetizers; we tried the seafood chowder ($3) and the prawns barbecued in beer ($8.50). The chowder, a decent-size bowl of golden cream soup, was bland, its stock thin and choked with hard chunks of undercooked potato and precious little seafood. "I wouldn't order this again," declared one member of our group, pushing back the unfinished bowl.
The prawns were no better--in fact, they were inedible. The menu promised "large shrimp wrapped in bacon and sautéed in a spicy tomato sauce," but there appears to be a lot of wiggle room in that phrase. Served barely lukewarm, the shrimp were small and wrapped in slimy, limp bacon strips. The barbecue sauce was fine, but nothing could save this "plate full of food poisoning waiting to happen," as one appalled Cheap Eater described the dish.
After such a dismal appetizer experience, we feared for our entrées. Thankfully they weren't as bad. The Wild Burger ($6.95) came topped with Swiss cheese, bacon, and wild mushrooms; the sautéed mushrooms were wonderful, with a dark, smoky flavor that blended exquisitely with the rich bacon (cooked thoroughly this time) and the sharp cheese. If the meat hadn't been broiled within an inch of its life, rendering the beef juiceless and tough, this might have been a decent burger. The accompanying fries were good; the hand-cut potatoes fried in a light, crunchy batter were the best thing to hit our table all night.
We rounded out dinner with two salads: grilled salmon ($8.95) and teriyaki steak ($8.50). The salmon salad was quite nice; generous strips of freshly grilled fish topped a generous bowl of greens. Romaine lettuce dominated, with a sprinkling of field greens and spinach. Purple cabbage, cherry tomatoes, and hard-boiled-egg slices accompanied. Best of all was the dressing, a wonderfully tangy combination of sesame, ginger, and soy flavors.
The teriyaki-steak salad featured the same veggies, but presented a host of difficulties. We asked for the house cabernet-vinaigrette dressing, and luckily we tasted it before pouring it over the entire platter--the dressing was unbelievably salty and would have ruined our dinner. It took us quite some time to attract the attention of our server and request a replacement (some of the excellent sesame dressing). It took even longer for him to bring it--we seethed for a solid 10 minutes before the new dressing arrived. Using the sesame dressing sparingly to compensate for the steak--it was tender but tasted overpoweringly of strong, sweet teriyaki marinade--we finally managed to dig in.
The meal ended on an up note with an excellent Linzertorte ($3.95), and the decaf coffee ($1.50 per cup) was delicious.
As generally mediocre as the food was, my chief problem with the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. was its inattentive and unprofessional service. Our waitperson apparently never noted that one of our three beers had gone untouched; ditto with the shrimp appetizer. A well-trained server would have inquired if everything was all right and offered to replace items with which we were dissatisfied. Our waitperson's visits were rare and swift; once, when someone requested more water, he returned to fill her glass, and then ignored every other empty glass on the table. So-so edibles can be forgiven at a brewpub, but lousy service discourages customers from returning.