Hampden's Arthouse has the cozy setting and warm flavors to ease winter's chill

Hampden has no shortage of dining options. And so a narrow, low-lit slip of an eatery like Arthouse (1115 W. 36th St., [443] 438-7700) could be easily overlooked, even on the Avenue. But a place this warm and cozy, with such hearty fare, is worth seeking out, especially on those long, cold winter nights.

The space was previously a gallery with the same name (and owners), and it retains a stylish, if subdued, style. Funky light fixtures fashioned out of hubcaps and glasses, among other things, reveal several eclectic contemporary art pieces and exposed brick everywhere. The fire within the giant brick oven in the back radiates an inescapable warmth.

Arthouse prides itself on its pizza, but when we stopped in on one of the first fiercely cold nights of the season, nothing sounded better than the soup of the day, beef stew ($6). We were not disappointed. Large cuts of meat swam in a broth made with red wine, apple cider, thyme, and garlic. It chased the chill from our bones with the quickness, and we were tempted to slurp the last of it down from the bowl like a kid trying to get every drop of sweet milk left after all the Froot Loops are gone. Instead we played it civilized and calmed ourselves with sips from our big, happy-hour pour of Tres Ojos ($4).

After the scrumptious stew, the squash salad ($7) with romaine, roasted butternut squash, bacon, ricotta, and Champage and Dijon vinaigrette was a bit of a letdown, bland and weighed down with too much ricotta. The small plates we tried, on the other hand, were delicate and full of flavor. Salmon Napolean ($7) consisted of crisp, neat stacks of cured salmon, cucumber, and beet slices, topped with dill, horseradish, and vinaigrette. Refreshing and light, it was the perfect complement to the stew. The deviled eggs trio ($5) offered stronger but just as well-balanced flavors: one half-egg white each of Maryland crab and Sriracha sauce, pickled beets and salmon caviar, and cured salmon.

One could linger over small plates and drinks at Arthouse for hours. The thoughtful wine and beer lists help. In addition to more than a dozen reds and whites available by the glass, there were a couple dozen wildly eclectic bottled beers to choose from, including Full Tilt's Patterson Pumpkin ($7) and Young's Double Chocolate Stout ($8), along with drafts like Fuller's London Pride ($5.50) and Peak Organic Summit ($6.50). After a satisfying round of lingering, we moved forward and ordered some pizza pies.

We estimate that crust is about 80 to 90 percent of what makes up a great pizza. You can definitely screw up a thing or two and still have a decent pizza, as long as the crust is good. And the crusts are the best part of Arthouse's pizza. Everyone has their own opinion, but the right one is that crusts should be crispy on both the edges and bottom, and chewy throughout. Arthouse nails this.

The margherita ($13), with house-made fresh mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil, came with way too much crushed tomato. Mind you, this wasn't tomato sauce, which, if it's good, can come thick and heavy as far as we're concerned. It was bland crushed tomato, likely from a can, spread thickly over the pie. The mozzarella and basil, though fresh and flavorful, couldn't quite offset all that tomato. The pie was ultimately saved by that delicious crust, thin but doughy-a difficult balance that few pizzerias get right.

There are about a dozen other pizzas on offer, including the chicken pot pie ($15) with roasted chicken, mirepoix, potato, béchamel, and thyme, and the fun guy ($15) with exotic mushrooms, shallot, fennel, brie, thyme, and balsamic reduction. We tried out the BBQ belly ($15), with pulled pork belly, honey-barbecue sauce, pickled red onion, cheddar, and mozzarella. It was about as heavy as you'd expect from the list of toppings, but flavorful, if a bit too sweet for our taste. And, again, the crust was the star.

Arthouse is open Tuesday through Friday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday Noon to 1 a.m., and Sunday Noon to 11 p.m.

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