Food & Drink

A Safe Bet

Bookmakers’ drinks pair with the fare.

When I first heard about Bookmakers Cocktail Club, I had visions of red leather banquettes, thick steaks, cigar smoke, and fat-fingered men sporting ring bling. While it’s true that this Federal Hill spot across from Cross Street Market is a little hard to find—kind of like a speakeasy—there is nothing to remotely suggest that Bookmakers is the kind of retro-swanky spot where shady high rollers conduct backroom business. With its exquisitely handcrafted cocktails, bold-flavored American menu, and late-Victorian-meets-hipster décor, it may be the first haven for a casually sophisticated night out in a ‘hood known mostly for pub grub and beer.

Contrary to the cavernous lounge-lizard digs I’d imagined, Bookmakers boasts an intimate interior, a long room where the bar runs parallel to high-top communal and low two-top tables and a series of banquettes along the wall. Plush dark gray banquettes, chairs, and embossed wallpaper invoke the late 1800s, underscored by playfully elaborate white miniature chandeliers and sconces. It’s cozy without being cloying.

Although the artisanal mixed-drink craze is hardly new, Bookmakers is possibly the best of its kind in Baltimore. For that, the credit goes to beverage director Ryan Sparks, formerly of The Brewer’s Art, Jack’s Bistro, and Of Love & Regret. He’s a seriously dedicated mixologist who has developed a dizzyingly well-stocked bar, where hundreds of bottles line up between lighted Gothic arches like a cathedral of cocktails. Sparks and his bartending staff create a seasonal menu of handcrafted specials, including some on tap. Many of the tinctures, drams, and bitters are house-made, and between those and the small-batch liquors, the end results are as multi-layered and complex as any culinary masterwork.

That’s where Sarah Acconcia, formerly of Le Garage and 13.5% Wine Bar, comes in. Acconcia is the restaurant’s second chef after Chris Amendola (formerly of Fleet Street Kitchen), who put in a five-week-or-so stint. She has created a seasonal menu that holds its own and complements the bar offerings in ways that interest and surprise.

The artisanal mixed drink craze is hardly new, but Bookmakers is possibly the best of its kind in Baltimore.

Early on a cold winter night, a special starter of smoked trout tater tots—crunchy, addictive, and suavely smoky—paired beautifully with the Bittersweet October, a bourbon-based cocktail with notes of allspice, lemon, coffee, and walnuts. An Autumn Mule’s combination of applejack and house-made ginger beer proved just the right accompaniment to the equally autumnal roasted pumpkin bruschetta sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. The only starter that disappointed was an arugula salad inexplicably scattered with popcorn and scantly dressed with barely detectable lemon vinaigrette. (Then again, when another starter on the menu is a cola-braised pork belly with apple-sage jam, what business does anyone have ordering a salad?)

There were no misses among the entrees, of which there are eight, in addition to nightly specials. The big plates are mostly gussied up versions of Southern-tinged comfort food, along with a French dip sandwich made with short ribs, and a dry-aged Roseda beef cheeseburger whose juicy heft and horseradish aioli make it highly recommendable. There’s a winning pork shoulder pot roast with carrot-top sauce that falls into soft shreds of tender meat with the touch of a fork.

And, in a departure from the heavy meat theme, there’s always a fish special. On one visit it was a rockfish
en papillote, whose puffy parchment jacket concealed a large, moist Maryland specimen as meaty as any animal on the menu. And shrimp lovers will be happy with the shrimp and grits, six fat shrimp atop a pile of rice grits and accompanied by chorizo gravy. (Yes, more meat.)

But the entree I’d come back for (again and again) is Acconcia’s signature Andy’s chicken, a bird cooked confit (in duck fat), and then fried. It arrived on a bed of chicken gravy with a side of bacon-braised kale and rice grits. If you think all of this is gilding the lily, you’d best stick to the arugula salad. Truly, Acconcia’s food is not for the faint-hearted. Even the vegetables and sides are rich—creamed spinach in foie gras butter, a cheddar cauliflower gratin—but the flavors come through with bold assertiveness.

After such a repast, it’s difficult to imagine wanting dessert, but who can resist a preserved mixed-berry pie in the middle of February, or a chocolate bread pudding whose hearty goodness was designed to shake off the winter blues? It certainly worked for me, as I hit the street feeling warm all over.

BOOKMAKERS COCKTAIL CLUB 31 E. Cross St., 443-438-4039.
HOURS Tues.–Sat. 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun. 4 p.m.-12 a.m.
CUISINE Southern comfort.
PRICE Appetizers and salads: $8-18; entrees: $14-27; desserts: $3-8.