The atmosphere may be schizophrenic, but the food at the former Reserve delights

1542 Gastropub

1542 Light St., [410] 605-0955,

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Though it’s now called 1542 Gastropub much of the bar/restaurant formerly known as the Reserve is the same. Sean White and Andrew Dunlap still own and operate the establishment. The interior is still the same mix of TV-heavy bar with the stone backsplash and a slightly more polished casual dining room with an open window into the kitchen. And the menu still surprises with better-than-bar food and unexpected pairings like escargot on waffles or cheesecake stuffed into a Mason jar.

What has changed is the chef—now Cyrus Keefer, formerly of Maisy’s and Brasserie 10 South—and the menu, which has been revised to concentrate on small plates and salads with a compact roster of specials that is updated frequently. There’s also an option for an assemble-your-own charcuterie plate with $5-a-serving meat and cheese selections like Humboldt Fog Goat and Rogue Smokey Blue or mortadella and sopressata. For $12 diners can choose one meat and one cheese and have them pressed into a panini, probably the most casual and self-explanatory offering on the menu after the crispy chicken wings. After that, everything gets a little more interesting.

Take those waffles ($12), seasonally perky with spring onions, the snails nesting on the square indentations. The whole thing is topped off with a madeira sauce with a subtle sweetness that turns out to be a clever nod to maple syrup that makes your palate do a double take. The Montreal classic, poutine ($11), also gets the Keefer treatment. This version is as messy (and tasty) as the original, with the addition of pork ragout, as well as bechamel sauce and mozzarella curds, smothering the plate of french fries. I only wish the dish came to the table with a consistent temperature instead of being tepid near the rim of the plate and warmer inside.

Bread makes frequent appearances on the menu, from a crunchy cucumber bread salad ($8), a little too heavy on the bread (even for a bread salad), but dressed with a creamy, pitch-perfect feta and dill dressing, to bread pudding ($5) served, as all desserts at 1542 Gastropub are, in a jar. The kitchen also makes a very fine loaf, which is served grilled and sliced with a side of olive oil, so it’s a little puzzling that the crust of the octopus pizza ($10) is less than stellar. The toppings—cured lemon, olives, nicely grilled octopus—work well together, though the addition of harissa makes for a very spicy pizza even for palates that welcome heat.

The night we dined, entree specials included short ribs and three seafood dishes. The tuna served with flat pasta handkerchiefs or fazzoletti ($15, special) is smoked in house from whatever was left of the previous day’s delivery so as not to waste any of the fish, our server reported. After being separated into large chunks, the fish is tossed with fresh baby artichokes and capers and served in a shallow dish filled with a light tomato broth. Smoky and salty with just a touch of savory sweetness from the tomato, it was my favorite dish of the evening.

Despite the inventive food, there are a few things 1542 Gastropub could work on. Small-plate portions are substantial and certainly large enough to share, so why not bring multiple small plates to the table, tapas style, so diners don’t have to use the same small plate throughout the meal? Serving utensils (or at least an additional utensil for serving) would help too. And while dessert in a jar is a cute concept, the reality of eating them is not as attractive (OK, creme brulee is probably easy; reaching down to the bottom of a Mason jar to scoop up the caramel sauce that accompanies bread pudding is not).

Balancing the tone between bar and restaurant is a perennial challenge for establishments that want to do both, and 1542 Gastropub is no different. Service in the dining area reads professional and polished, from replacing a napkin when a diner leaves the table to offering tastes of wine and serving by-the-glass pours from small cruets. It’s slightly unnerving, then, when the bartender abruptly approaches the table and challenges the diner who arrived early and ordered a drink at the bar “how she was going to take care of that” instead of quietly offering to transfer the cost of the drink to the dinner tab or explaining that it is more convenient for bar service to settle there before proceeding with dinner. There’s also the juxtaposition of what feels like fine dining with the bar’s many televisions, a formidable classic-rock soundtrack, and the occasional trivia night. If you want a quiet place to catch up over dinner, 1542 Gastropub might not be your first choice, but if you want better-than-pub grub that can add to your surprise and delight while you watch the O’s, this could be the place.

1542 Gastropub is open Tuesday-Sunday for dinner; brunch Saturday and Sunday. MMM cherie

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