SISSON'S RESTAURANT in Baltimore is another shining example of the advantages a good brewpub can bring to a community: It draws a broad, relatively upscale crowd to a reawakening neighborhood (the Cross Street Market strip in Federal Hill); offers patrons a chance to learn to drink (and eat) discriminatingly; and it produces a range of fresh, first-quality beers that, freed from the costs of bottling, mass distribution and advertising, can be sold at astonishing prices.
Baseball and brewpubs. Baltimore is getting to be my brew heaven. No wonder more and more people who work in Washington choose to live in Baltimore. (MARC says 3,000 commute by train every day; we predict that by the time Camden Yards opens, it'll be more.)
Sisson's is in fact about as upscale a tavern as could be imagined -- British in brewstyle, neo-restorationist (exposed brick and Harvard-crimson plaster) in decor and schizo-chic in cuisine: Creole-blackened with nouvelle salsas and the backup baby-back barbecue.
Not even a year old, Sisson's has already had to expand the kitchen and dining rooms upstairs, though the owners have smartly stuck to the simple and elegant Federal look. The tables in the back of the bar are covered with sheets of copper -- a nice touch -- and several have old-fashioned pew benches in place of more modern banquettes. The bar area itself is more pubbish, of course; the walls are adorned with the usual mosaic of beer memorabilia and the ceiling beams are "shelved" with cans. The brewery function is somewhat downplayed; only a couple of fermentation tanks are visible, and they're very low-profile, half under the stairs.
The chicken wings, ribs and burgers are obviously popular, which implies their reliability; the more ambitious menu offerings are intriguing, if a little erratic. Sisson's seafood gumbo is the dirtiest stew north of the Pontchartrain (that's a compliment, for you northern novices), lumpy with little crawfish and with a roux you could stain your mama's sideboard with.
Grilled tuna is spectacular, just brushed with the flavor of charcoal and dressed with a pineapple-green chile salsa. Bourbon Street chicken breast is pretty well grilled and topped with a liquor-splashed cream sauce, but the apples should be more integrated. One night's special, poached catfish, was a bit too clever -- catfish, for all its river breeding, is a fairly delicate flesh and it was poached right out of any presence on the plate. (Still, it's nice to have catfish at all.) And escargot in linguini was a luxuriant concept, but the reticent snail needs added punch -- that's why they're so legendarily garlicky, after all -- and the restrained pasta wound up being pretty pallid.
But these are minor quibbles. We're talking beer here. Sisson's has two regular recipes, the Stockade amber lager (big in front, not too long in the back) and the Marble pale ale; and usually two seasonal offerings, currently a raspberry wheat beer (more wheat beer than Frambozenbier) and a wonderful malty, chewy but after-bitter stout.
More astonishingly, Sisson's home brews (each averaging about 4 percent alcohol) can be had for $1.50 per glass, $2.75 per pint and $5 for a pitcher. And that includes the tax. The only thing left is to make it legal to carry your own pitcher home, as they do in Britain.
Sisson's matchbooks advertise "beer drinking lessons," and in the best sense, it's true: With beer as with anything else, an educated consumer is a more discriminating one.
Sisson's is on East Cross Street just off Light Street: From Washington, go to Harbor Place and turn south on Light, don't get forked left onto Key Highway and continue another minute or so to Cross; or call 301/539-2093. It's truly a family shop -- the brewmaster is Hugh Sisson, and the GQ in the tie is Topher Sisson -- and if you call in advance (or if they're not swamped), they'll show you the brewing operation in the basement.
And while you're there . . . In the same block is one of Baltimore's finest music clubs (and no-tie taverns), the variously yclept 8 X 10, Eight by Ten, etc. Whichever logo you use, sometime Slickee and producer Giles Cook's gloriously grungy noise box is prime (301/625-2001). Maybe they could run a tapline from Sisson's.
BREWPUB 2: Baltimore's other brewpub, the German-style Baltimore Brewing Co. across Jones Falls canal from Little Italy, has adjusted its menu, at least temporarily, to include what the restaurant calls "one-third German dishes and two-thirds American," meaning spare ribs, catch of the day, fried chicken, etc.
"We're not backing away from the German identification," says new brewmaster Bill Covaleski. "We're just trying to match the audience better."
The dog-days dining crowd has thinned at BBC, as most elsewhere, and Covaleski says it may be that German cuisine sounds too heavy for the humid weather.
Covaleski, a childhood friend of predecessor Ron Barchet, who's back studying in Germany, says he hasn't fiddled with the brewpub's beer formulas (a pilsener, a lager and a dark), but is about to unveil an Oktoberfest recipe he and Barchet collaborated on, and is planning a pale Christmas bock as well -- the sort of seasonal brewing that Barchet and the DeGroens, the restaurant's owners, had always planned. The Baltimore Brewing Co. is on Albemarle Street just off Pratt; 301/837-5000.
MARYLAND MUSIC 2: Last year's Rocky Gap Country/Bluegrass Festival in Cumberland was funded by the the state of Maryland; the second, independent edition a few weeks ago pulled in an estimated 45,000 fans, despite some ugly weather.
So this year, the state has set up a new nonprofit group to run the first Tangier Sound Country/Bluegrass Festival, a similar (though one-day) all-ages gathering Saturday in the seafood capital of the Eastern Shore, Crisfield on the Bay. Main-stage entertainment begins at noon, with Alison Krauss & Union Station, followed by Tim O'Brien, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Desert Rose Band, Kathy Mattea, Lyle Lovett & His Large Band and Ricky Scaggs. There are also dobro, banjo, fiddle and mandolin workshops, a continuous-call square and contra dance tent, and a special children's music stage.
The festival opens at 11 at Hammock Pointe on Route 143; free parking and shuttle buses are available in several locations in Crisfield, plus moorings for about 350 boats at Somers Cove Marina next to the concert site. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the gate, under 6 free; to charge tickets call 301/625-1400 (from Maryland) or 800/638-2444. For other ticket and festival information call 800/648-4988. No alcohol will be permitted.