IT'S NOT YELLOW, and never was, really -- though it was a bank, and it's definitely brick -- and for a long time it seemed to be swimming against the tide, trying to produce modern American cuisine in the then anything-but-trendy Shepherdstown, W.Va. But the Yellow Brick Bank has been a cult favorite with Washingtonians for more than 20 years; and it has managed to expand, experiment and even sprout a mini-inn upstairs without losing its local following (or changing its essential style). And that is no small achievement.
In the meantime, Shepherdstown has been "discovered" as an almost irresistibly nostalgic artsy getaway, full of lovely old homes and churches, a college and an air of retro-'60s tolerance that goes far beyond the tie-dyes and organic truck farmers' stands. It's the sort of town where people walk their dogs (and often, the dogs walk themselves) along the main drag, hang out on coffee shop stoops and play guitar, raise money for the local library and engage strangers in easy small talk. It's surrounded by historical markers, only minutes from Harpers Ferry and the Antietam battlefield; it's also the sort of town where you might see a Rolls-Royce, Humvee or top-of-the-line Beemer at the meter, a snapshot of a farmhouse going for $400,000 in the Realtor's window and a perfectly decent Clare Valley shiraz on the menu. It's as much a tribute to the town's look as to the quality of the productions that the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival has become such a summertime draw.
The Yellow Brick Bank, housed in an almost-century-old Beaux-Arts building, seems like the epitome of this casually literate, intentionally motley culture. The building itself is both prim and preposterous, like a well-dressed lady in a frivolous hat, with its blasted-clean brick walls, crisp awnings, Paris Expo rounded roof and outlandishly bright exterior furbelows. The main dining room is painted mauve with blue trim, hung with a couple of oversize French advertising posters in plain frames; the bar is brilliantly window-lit with pale hardwood floors, almost minimalist. And the food is similarly tricked out: basically solid, with its greater strengths in the more straightforward dishes, but with a few wisps of whimsy here and there.
The Bank famously makes its own mozzarella, and that's a good place to start fresh, as the kitchen has access to fine local tomatoes and basil; it also makes its own breads and pastas, and the thin, crunchy pizzette is no mini-disc but enough for a meal. Among recent appetizers have been a couple of really satisfying offerings -- fresh figs with Maytag blue cheese, wrapped in a swish of prosciutto and sauteed; and Portuguese-style clams with smoked sausage, wine and tomatoes -- and a few middling ones: The scallop ceviche with ruby red grapefruit, lime and orange juice had lost its seafood flavor to the (too sweet) citrus, and the grilled ribs with Southern Comfort, grilled pineapple and Kahlua tasted a little like a showy bartender's shooter.
There are a few curious moments along the entree menu, too, though not critical lapses. The "puerco asado" was very flavorful, nicely marinated in sour orange, but was served shredded, a la ropa vieja, rather than sliced. The "Moors and Christians" accompanying it was not actually moros y cristianos, black beans and white rice, but separate sides; the beans were very good, but as with any beans-grains dish, it would have developed a different character if prepared in combination. And a grilled salmon with soy sauce and baby bok choy was only so-so.
However, the kitchen does balance the bigger flavors with assurance. A wood-roasted bluefish under a Provencal blanket of tomato, fennel, olives and artichokes was fine. Swordfish swaggered under a similarly south-Mediterranean sauce like a grilled pepper jam and fragrant big-leaf basil. Grilled hanger steak (another near-staple, but with changing condiments) is both tender and fully beef-flavored; and the wood-grilled pork loin might have buckled under the combined challenge of its Maytag blue crusting, spiced apples and (too sweet, again) raisin corn bread, but it remained mellow and self-assured.
Mellow, yellow, yeah, well, can't be helped. This is Shepherdstown, after all.