Restaurant Review: Nepenthe Brewing Co. is worth a visit, despite a few uneven dishes

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Before I stepped foot inside Nepenthe Brewing Co., I’d already heard a lot about it. I knew it was a new concept for Nepenthe Homebrew, a well-respected shop within the local homebrewing community that moved after a series of floods ravaged its building in the Meadow Mill complex next to the Jones Falls.

I’d also heard, through friends, that the new Nepenthe location was a lot of fun. They were right. During our visit, Nepenthe’s food was uneven, but there was a lot to like about it; the space, drinks and people went a long way towards making up for a few imperfections from the kitchen.

Nepenthe Brewing Co. bills itself as a shop, brewery and taproom, but the “taproom” designation doesn’t go far enough. It has the

look and feel of a craft brewery taproom, with high ceilings, fun artwork, tons of natural light and a huge bar, plus both small and communal tables, but Nepenthe is more than just a spot for craft beers. It’s a full-fledged restaurant, with a broad bar menu (not just beer) and a busy kitchen.

Nepenthe’s brews are, of course, a main event. We tried a flight of four beers: False Grail, a citrusy American pale ale; Hammock Beer, an easy-drinking kolsch; Something Pity, a grapefruit pale ale; and Cute Little Saison for Day Drinking, which lived up to its name.

Though all four of our choices were on the lighter side, none were boring. Because we were focused on Nepenthe as a restaurant, not just a brewery, we gravitated most toward False Grail; it paired best with our meals.

Nepenthe beer flights come with handwritten cards identifying each beer.

While most of the drinks menu is, appropriately, devoted to beer, Nepenthe also offers a small and thoughtful selection of wines and has an intriguing set of house cocktails.

During our visit, the taproom’s big front windows were open, making the space pleasantly warm and sunny, so naturally, we ordered a Southside. Nepenthe’s take on the summertime cocktail takes inspiration from the classic Baltimore version of the drink. The restaurant’s version was more lemony than some others we’ve had; the citrusy spin was a good one.

Nepenthe’s food menu is smart, packed with the kinds of snacks and sandwiches people want when they’re grabbing a beer or two. Nothing is overly fancy, but it’s several large steps up from bowls of peanuts on the bar. The food is not an afterthought.

We started with a couple snacks: Diablo eggs and beer cheese croquettes.

The eggs, which were topped with Sriracha garlic mousse, gochugaru chili flakes and a smattering of scallions, had terrific flavor and just the right amount of heat. However, the egg itself was cooked just a little too much.

The croquettes were more of a winner. Crunchy, slightly salty on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, they were an excellent match for honey mustard and beer cheese dipping sauces that arrived on the side.

 

The croquettes–and several other dishes–also arrived with a small dish of house-made pickles. We’re suckers for good pickles and we loved Nepenthe’s crunchy, tangy, slightly salty version.

The house burger came topped with lettuce, tomato, grilled shallots and cheddar; we also added bacon to ours. The menu promises that it will be cooked to medium–and it was–and we liked the glossy bun and the flavor of the meat blend. If we had our druthers, we might have seasoned the burger a little more, but that’s nitpicking. It was a good burger.

The fries on the side great, too: cut about a quarter inch thick, super crispy on the outside and just salty enough.

The fried chicken sandwich was our favorite of the sandwiches. Served on a bun, the chicken was crispy and juicy, and paired gorgeously with chili honey and a few more of those pickles. The honey was the right balance of sweet and hot, the pickles added necessary tang and the chicken was cooked beautifully; the combination of flavors, textures and capable preparation made the sandwich a success all around.

Unfortunately, the brisket sliders were a disappointment, especially compared to the well-conceived and well-executed chicken sandwich.

They sounded like a great idea: The brisket was braised in cherry ancho stout jus and served with shallots and even more pickles. But something went awry in the preparation; the meat was so dry and stringy we couldn’t even discern if its flavor was good.

Despite the overcooked egg and disappointing sliders, based on the quality of the food and drinks alone, we’re fans of Nepenthe. Our interactions with the staff bolstered those feelings.

The service is one spot where Nepenthe veers more into taproom territory than restaurant. Orders are placed at the bar and drinks are grabbed directly from the bartenders, while food is delivered to the tables by servers.

Orders at Nepenthe are placed with the bartenders.

Dishes come out as they’re ready, so meals might arrive at different times–and the kitchen is quick. We’d barely had a chance to sip our drinks when our first snacks arrived.

Everyone we spoke with, from the bartender to the food runner, was cheery, friendly and helpful (even when we were dithering over drink choices). That attitude seemed contagious; it looked to us like everybody in the restaurant was having a good time. The friends who recommended the place to us were right: Nepenthe is fun.

Nepenthe has a limited dessert menu–there was one option during our visit–but the evening was so nice that we opted to skip the restaurant’s brownie sundae in favor of making the short trek over to The Avenue to check out Quality Snowballs, the new Hampden snowball stand run by the crew from The Food Market.

Quality Snowballs is located on The Avenue in Hampden.

We didn’t regret it. Quality has a wide variety of snowballs, from the classics to more creative choices. I am a snowball purist and Quality’s egg custard with marshmallow met my (high) expectations. Sticky, sweet and cold, it was exactly what I wanted it to be.

If you’re more adventurous in your snowball choices, try the half-baked blondie, topped with toasted marshmallow. The icy spin on The Food Market’s popular dessert was terrific: creamy and cold, with just the slightest bit of crunch from the toasted topping.

Whether or not you end your night with a stroll to The Avenue, Nepenthe is worth a visit. Go for the beer, stay for (some of) the food and go back for the friendly vibe.

Nepenthe Brewing Co. 3626 Falls Road, Baltimore, (443) 438-4846, nepenthehomebrew.com

Final Grade: B

Bottom Line: Despite a couple uneven dishes, Nepenthe Brewing Co.’s fun atmosphere, good drinks and mostly good food make it worth a visit



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