Bookmakers Cocktail Club (31 E. Cross St.,  438-4039, bookmakersbaltimore.com) feels a bit out of place in Federal Hill; its minimalist black facade stands in stark contrast to the bright lights of the cheap pizza joint and the blaring TVs of the sports bar that sit on the same block. In fact, we nearly walked past the place the first time we visited—we were staring at the address on our phone and looking around, confused, until we spotted the plaque on the wall right next to our face that said “Bookmakers Cocktail Club Baltimore.” Oops.
The interior, too, makes it clear that Bookmakers isn’t your average Federal Hill establishment—tables are flanked by gray tufted chairs, backlit shelves of top-notch booze sit behind the dark bar, hip white chandeliers are scattered around the ceiling. But one wouldn’t expect any less from a restaurant that has Ryan Sparks, who was previously bar manager at Jack’s Bistro, as the beverage director and Sarah Acconcia, previously of Le Garage and City Paper’s Best Chef in 2014, as executive chef.
Given the team’s impressive track records, we had high hopes for Bookmakers, and the seasonal cocktail menu definitely did not disappoint. Smashing Pumpkins ($13) combined scotch, strega (an Italian herbal liqueur), Southern Tier Pumking beer, orange, pumpkin butter, and chai for a wonderfully complex flavor profile—a refreshing change from some other pumpkin cocktails in the city that seem to do nothing more than the bare minimum to pander to the current pumpkin craze. Our favorite, by far, was the Mortensaften ($12), which combined Krogstad Aquavit (a spirit flavored with star anise and caraway), Cocchi Americano (an aperitif wine), cranberry, cinnamon, vanilla, sage, egg white, fresh lemon, and black pepper—a long list of ingredients, perhaps, but they came together beautifully, with the egg white providing a refreshing foam on top of the drink and the black pepper giving a perfect kick of an aftertaste.
The food menu, however, didn’t quite hit the same high note as the cocktail list. Rather than the “approachable French cuisine” that Acconcia created at Le Garage, Bookmakers focuses on modern American food, creating elevated versions of dishes that one might find at other bars in the city. And while we enjoyed most of the food at Bookmakers, many of the dishes still left us wanting a little bit more—either in terms of flavor or sheer volume.
The seared pork belly appetizer ($14), for instance, provided only two small pieces of pork belly next to a neat pile of slaw made from Brussels sprouts, radish, and celery with just enough buttermilk dressing to keep it crisp. The pork belly had a lovely, sweet sauce on it, but we wished the meat itself was a bit more fatty, and the portions felt fairly small for the price, especially when compared to the much-larger pile of slaw sitting next to it. For entrees, the waitress actually warned us that the rye gnocchi ($18) was a relatively small dish, and sure enough, there were only four or so gnocchi on the plate when she brought it out. To be fair, these were much larger than your usual potato gnocchi, and we enjoyed their complex flavor and the combination of pastrami sauce, provolone, horseradish, and honey mustard, but we still felt a little hungry after eating that and an appetizer.
We ordered desserts to fill our stomachs, but found them to be a bit of a letdown. The salted caramel pot de crème ($6) said it was topped with candied nuts, but the pile of peanut halves covering the top didn’t seem to be candied, and while the texture of the pot de crème was lovely, we could barely taste the caramel flavor through all the peanuts. At least the boozy milk punch ($8) was innovative—it had the texture of sno-balls but the taste and creaminess of Irish cream liqueur. The triple chocolate cookie paired with it, though, tasted like it came out of a Pepperidge Farm bag.
We found Bookmakers’ culinary highlight on a subsequent visit, though: Andy’s Chicken, confit and fried ($20). The chicken had the perfect balance of crunchy, surprisingly sweet skin on the outside and tender, juicy meat on the inside. It was paired with creamy corn grits and warm bacon-braised kale, which had a well-rounded flavor with the bacon and a good amount of crunch left in the greens. A bite assembled of all three—chicken, grits, kale—tasted perfectly balanced, and we only wished that there had been a little more grits and kale to go with the chicken, so that we could have had enough to combine every bite of chicken with the sides.
Everything on the menu may not have been a perfect hit, and you should probably expect to shell out money for three courses if you want to leave feeling completely full, but it’s worth going for the cocktails, and it’s a far more classy culinary option than most places in Federal Hill—a point that was driven home to us when, as we left Bookmakers around 9 p.m. and walked past the bar a few doors down, we passed a crowd of already-drunk dudes with one of them asking loudly, “Bro, bro, what’s your favorite bar that you’ve gotten kicked out of?”
Bookmakers Cocktail Club is open Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m. and Sunday 4 p.m.-midnight.