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Hempen Hill is heavy on menu, service

January 21, 2007|by SAVORY SAM

We generally dine family style in the Savory Sam clan, and we prefer stylish surroundings, strongly flavored food and a casual atmosphere.

So we felt right at home in Hempen Hill BBQ Bar & Grill.

Hempen Hill is the successor to Antrim House in the corner of Fountainhead Plaza north of Hagerstown. And just as Antrim House was a popular family restaurant in its day, Hempen Hill is a terrific place for today's families.

The atmosphere in Hempen Hill is upbeat and warm, courtesy of bold, earth-tone color on the walls and a scattering of large beer-themed graphic art. Hardwood floors and a high, industrial-chic ceiling provide a boisterous soundscape. Except for bathrooms and a private meeting room, the entire restaurant is one large room, lending a party atmosphere to the place.

None of us Savory Sams are barbecue aficionados, but it helps to know a bit about barbecue before ordering. There are many regional styles. Lexington-style North Carolina barbecue is slow-cooked, shredded pork shoulder with a ketchup-based sauce. Baltimore pit beef barbecue is grilled top round, sliced thin and served rare without sauce. Texas Hill Country barbecue is slow-cooked beef brisket, smoky and flavorful, sometimes served with spicy red sauce, sometimes not. Kansas City barbecue's ribs and beef brisket are served with a tangy tomatoey sauce.

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A variety of barbecue styles are offered by Hempen Hill all over the wide-ranging menu. There is even a decent variety of vegetarian offerings, a thoughtful touch for a restaurant favoring people with a carnivorous side.

But that's to be expected from an eatery that wants to serve today's diverse clientele.

Looking around the restaurant, the clientele was indeed diverse. We saw several families, a table with three young men talking animatedly, a young couple on a date and, in the meeting room, a private party with smartly dressed business types in their 50s and 60s.

One of Hempen Hill's hallmarks is its fun, personal atmosphere. The placemats tell the story of the restaurant's founding by Jay and Kathy Reeder. A beer six-pack box on the table holds condiments - Grey Poupon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, steak sauce and three homemade barbecue sauces (original, hot-n-spicy and sweet).

The place was busy, and the bar - set apart from the restaurant by a partition - was packed. But we never felt crowded by fellow patrons or ignored by servers. In fact, our waitresses were attentive and friendly.

We began our dinner with appetizers - Hempen Ale Onion Rings, Crab Bisque with Pita Points and Kettle Crab Chips (homemade tortilla chips topped with cheddar cheese and crab dip). We washed this down with three of the four Hempen Hill-branded beers - Pale Ale, Blonde Lager, Burning Ember and Stout - brewed by Barley & Hops Brewing in Frederick, Md.

The appetizers earned raves all around. The crab bisque was creamy and peppery with bits of tomato. The menu suggested that the Kettle Crab Chips were sized for two diners, and the serving was generous with plenty of cheese and crab dip. "You don't want to tackle this if you only have two people," said one member of the clan.

My dearest companion praised the lightly battered onion rings, pointing to the high ratio of thick-cut onions to batter. "These are real onion rings. And I've had lots of onion rings."

Our main courses sampled from all parts of the menu. Dearest companion ordered the Not-so-basic Cobb Salad, with lump crab and smoked trout. A young vegetarian ordered Thai-spiced smoked tofu (tossed with bell pepper strips and broccoli florets and served over spaghetti). The meat-lover ordered medium-rare rib-eye steak. We also ordered the lightly breaded wahoo (a large, Hawaiian sport fish) served with a fruity salsa and what the menu called the "Pit Beef Sandwich Baltimore Style Hon!"

The food was served without delay and was generally good to excellent, although heavy on the comfort-food side. The smoked tofu had plenty of spicy, salty sauce. It transcended being "for vegetarians only." The wahoo also was flavorful, courtesy of its delicious salsa of caramelized pineapple, onion, banana slices, roasted peppers and julienned plums. One diner mentioned the wahoo was a welcome respite from the heaviness of some of the other dishes.

The beef received mixed reviews. Our resident beef lover thought the rib-eye was satisfactory but not outstanding. She wanted a marinade to complement the meat. Also, she felt the kitchen had overcooked the beef.

The pit beef sandwich was an acceptable version of the Baltimore-style barbecue, served on seeded rye with horseradish and raw onion. But if you don't like gristly meat, go with one of the slow-cooked barbecues.

The Cobb salad was a visual treat, with dollops of color - trout on one end and crab on the other with sliced avocado, purplish onion, tomato, hard-cooked egg and blue cheese between - on a bed of greens. Much of the salad was fresh, but the eye-pleasing avodacos were mysteriously tough.

"Cardboard," someone said.

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