Heavy Seas Alehouse
1300 Bank St., No. 120,  522-0850, heavyseasalehouse.com
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Although it opened in February, Heavy Seas Alehouse functions with the ease of an old-timer. The brick-and-beam bar and dining room, last home to Diablita, feels lived in, and the staff conducts itself like pros. Want to know where today’s raw-bar oysters hail from? They’re on it. Need a beer rec? It’s offered with a low-key mix of beer geek and aiming-to-please. That the restaurant takes its name (as well as all the tap selections) from co-owner Patrick Dahlgren’s stepfather Hugh Sisson’s 17-year-old Baltimore-based craft brewery only adds to the sense of the history, invoking a brief wave of nostalgia for Sisson’s late, eponymous Federal Hill brewpub of the early 1990s (Blueberry wheat beer! Bread pudding!). Even so, Heavy Seas Alehouse is very much its own creation, and a welcome one at that.
Pubs have become the contemporary go-to, the common denominator for diners of varying tastes and budgets, and Dahlgren and co-owners Vince Cassino and chef Matt Seeber are clearly trying to please a broad audience, one that wants a beer, clams on the half-shell, and a hefty burger, as well as the folks who look for more formal fish or steak entrees. Not every establishment can pull this off, but Heavy Seas is going about it in the right way by keeping its menu small and well defined, with a focus on pub and regional fare. Sure, beer drinkers will be drawn to the broad portfolio of Heavy Seas offerings on tap, including seasonal and cask selections, but the bar also proffers a range of beer-influenced cocktails such as the HS Manhattan, spiked with a liqueur made with Peg Leg Stout, or the slightly sweet Sea Shandy, a mix of beer and house-made pomegranate lemonade infused with enough rosemary to give it a hint of duskiness.
Though compact, the menu is also set up for lots of grazing options, and items from the raw bar, including smoked mussel salad and lobster salad, and snacks, appetizers, salads, and side dishes make up more than half of the bill of fare, suggesting the restaurant expects happy-hour nibbles to be as popular as sandwiches or entrees. I can certainly vouch for the addictiveness of the spicy beer nuts ($5), a tumble of glossy pecans napped in spices both sweet and hot, one of five selections in the “Snack” section. Like the nuts, other “snacks” also play on traditional tavern fare, like sausage sliders or pickled eggs ($4.50), pink from their beet marinade and served with anchovies and tarragon-dusted beets, an intriguing play of sweet and sour, earthy and floral.
If the night is cool, however, don’t pass up the oyster chowder ($8.50), a silky broth of cream and oyster liquor in which two freshly shucked oysters and a dice of potato, onion, and celery bob. The chowder is delicate but no wallflower, and my only suggested improvement is the addition of another oyster: one to share with a tablemate, two for me. You will not have the same internal struggle in sharing the buttermilk-marinated Loose Cannon-battered onion rings ($6.50), not because they are not delicious, but because the portion is staggeringly generous (they also stay crispy even as they cool—hurrah!).
The menu offers three sandwiches—a Cuban, a burger, and a portobello burger—but Seeber’s successes with casual fare suggest an expert hand for entrees, and a grilled hanger steak ($24) surpasses even high expectations, particularly with the substitution of pureed celery root for mashed potatoes and the toss of bacon, pearl onions, and wild mushrooms that smother the nicely turned-out meat. Crab-stuffed flounder ($26) is fresh, but ends up mild to the point of bland despite a pretty garnish of translucent lemon slices. The real surprise (and disappointment), however, are the mussels and fries ($18), which lacked real distinctiveness and flavor, even though several fat cloves of garlic floated among the tangle of fennel slices floating in the broth. So solid was nearly everything else sampled that the mussels seemed a puzzling conundrum. Was it simply an off night for that preparation or does it need some tweaking?
All of Heavy Seas Alehouse’s desserts are made in house, and the kitchen is doing clever things with ice cream infusions and beer reductions. Creme brulee is dressed up in Earl Grey tea; Pimlico pie, a chocolate, pecan, and brown-sugar confection, is paired with black cardamom gelato. The lovely, moist ginger stout cake ($6.50) tastes like the best fruitcake you ever had, only unmarred by day-glo candied cherries and pineapple. It is garnished with whipped cream buoyed by a reduction of Peg Leg stout and candied kumquats, and while a server advises pushing the fruit off the cake if it doesn’t appeal, that would be a waste of a beautiful and tasty garnish.
In a short time, Heavy Seas Alehouse is drawing happy-hour revelers, corporate shirts and ties, couples on a night out, and a clientele of varied ages and backgrounds, which speaks to the sheer comfort of the place. Although no beer is brewed on premises, Heavy Seas Alehouse feels every bit as authentic as any of Baltimore’s historic or contemporary brewpubs. It’s a worthy addition to the lineup.
Heavy Seas Alehouse is open for lunch and dinner seven days. Lubber