The Alexander Brown Restaurant is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking places in Baltimore. The restaurant, which opened downtown in early February in the former home of the Alex. Brown investment house, has the air of a well-maintained museum. The 118-year-old building is full of gorgeous architectural flourishes: high ceilings, marble columns and a showstopper of a stained-glass ceiling.
A space that spectacular sets the bar high for the rest of the experience. On a recent Wednesday night, as we took our seats–comfortable ones, on a pretty banquette next to a fireplace–our expectations were sky-high.
Unfortunately, they weren’t quite met. I think The A.B., as it’s called, has the potential to be a stellar restaurant. But it’s not there yet.
During our visit, the restaurant was about three-quarters full. It looked like more than a few of the groups were comprised of co-workers; The A.B. is the kind of place tailor-made for business dinners. Chef Andrew Fontaine’s menu seems sophisticated, but it’s not edgy, and some price points are expense-account high (like a $53 ribeye entrée and a $49 New York strip).
We started with a pair of less pricey appetizers: crab beignets and chicken-fried veal sweetbreads served with kimchi.
The sweetbreads themselves were terrific–battered and fried carefully, so the coating was crunchy but the delicate organ meat was still tender. The kimchi was also appealing, though we had to take care with how we constructed each bite: just a little fermented cabbage goes a long way. When we took too big a scoop, the kimchi’s funky flavor obliterated the taste of the sweetbread.
We had the opposite problem with the crab beignets. There, the culprit was not enough flavor. The round, lightly fried balls of crab meat were, like the sweetbreads, cooked nicely, but begged for a squeeze of lemon or a shake of salt–something to draw out the sweetness of the crab.
The plate of beignets also included a smear of avocado crème fraiche that was likable but didn’t deliver any extra zing. A sprinkle of Old Bay was a step in the right direction but it wasn’t enough.
The beignets were the only crab item we spotted on the menu during our visit, which is surprising. While I’m a firm believer that Baltimore’s culinary scene has more to offer the world than crab cakes, I also think that restaurants likely to host out-of-towners should have a good crab cake on the menu.
Like the appetizers, our entrées were conceptually on target, but were hit or miss in the flavor department.
The sorghum-glazed pork chop (from Mt. Airy’s Wagon Wheel Ranch) with collard greens and Anson Mills grits was the most successful dish of the evening. The Southern-influenced combination felt familiar: It’s the kind of entrée that began turning up on restaurants all over the country a dozen or so years ago during a Southern cooking resurgence.
The A.B.’s take on the dish was classic and well-executed. Cooked until soft, the greens were seasoned nicely and provided a slightly bitter counterpoint to the creamy grits and savory pork. The chop was excellent. Thick, flavorful and juicy, it had just the slightest hint of pink inside.
The sliced duck breast over black rice and baby bok choy, with tiny bits of pickled daikon radish and cauliflower, was as gorgeous as the space, and I wanted to love it without reservation. But I couldn’t.
On paper, the dish made sense: duck is rich, pickled vegetables should offer a lively contrast. It was the execution that gummed up the works.
To start, the duck was rare–very rare–and I hadn’t been asked how I wanted it done. While the temperature was fine for me, it wouldn’t be universally acceptable (my husband, who is not typically squeamish about rare meats, thought it needed another minute over the flame).
The bigger concern was that the duck, rice and bok choy were all under-seasoned. They didn’t need a lot of salt, but they did need some. And without it, the dish was, frankly, boring. There were no salt or pepper shakers on the table, either, so we couldn’t remedy the seasoning problem ourselves.
The pickled vegetables did live up to their promise; the best bites I took were ones that included a bit of radish or cauliflower. But I had to ration them, as there weren’t enough pickled goodies for every bite of duck.
With just a little help–a few more veggies, a couple shakes of salt and a little more time cooking–the dish would’ve been a resounding success. The ingredients were high quality and the concept was there. It just needed more.
Dessert, fortunately, was a winner. A round of espresso-infused chocolate, served with croutons of dense date cake and a scoop of creamy coffee ice cream, was intense, rich and decadent. It was sweet enough without being cloying and more than satisfied.
The beverages also delivered one of the meal’s bright spots. At $15, our French 75 cocktail (Parisian-style) was on the expensive side, but the classic combination of gin, lemon and sparkling wine was well-balanced.
Given some of the higher prices on the food and cocktail menus, the wine list was pleasantly reasonable, with choices at multiple price points. Our selection, the 2014 Les Granieres de la Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape, was lovely and, at only $30, a steal. (The same wine typically retails for nearly that much.)
We found another happy surprise in an unlikely spot: the restroom.
Located down a flight of steps from the dining rooms, the bathrooms are the one part of the building where The A.B.’s aesthetic gets irreverent, with fun pop art paintings of founding fathers. That levity, courtesy of artist Ashley Longshore, gives me hope for the restaurant. It makes me think that they don’t take themselves so seriously that they’re not open to change.
Because it wouldn’t take much to help the whole experience at The A.B. live up to its grandiose space.
The Alexander Brown. 135 E. Baltimore St., (443) 438-4540, alexanderbrownrestaurant.com
Final Grade: B-
Bottom Line: The Alexander Brown Restaurant’s gorgeous space sets high expectations for food and service, which aren’t quite met, but could be with some fine-tuning.