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The servers at Dogfish Head Alehouse can tell you almost everything about the artisan-crafted brews for sale. They can tell you that the Golden Showers Imperial Pilsner conforms to the Bavarian Purity Act of 1516. They can tell you that cradling a snifter of 120 Minute IPA is like holding “crushed hops in your hands.” They can even tell you the story about Chateau Jiahu, a sakelike beer based on a 9,000-year-old recipe meticulously re-created from molecular evidence still clinging to ancient pottery in Northern China.
What the wait staff can’t tell you is how the kitchen prepares its Big Strong Mussels. The bivalves arrive with their shells already split apart, their nubs of flesh exposed like tiny pink vulvas. I hesitantly sample one of the red-tinted bits, which tastes surprisingly smoky. The waitress informs me that the mussels were cooked on a grill. Skeptical, I wonder aloud how the kitchen could prevent the little oblong shells from falling through the rack. She suggests a tightly spaced grid.
Several minutes later, a kitchen manager comes by to clarify: The mussels were sautéed in a pan with a reduced Shelter Pale Ale cream sauce.
The gap between the staff’s beer knowledge and its food knowledge tells you practically everything you need to know about the Dogfish Head Alehouse: Suds rule here, and with an iron fist. Dogfish Head’s wide-ranging selection of beer is so dominating that the pedestrian pub grub on the menu pales by comparison.
The alehouse in Gaithersburg is the first franchisee of Sam Calagione’s Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach, which has been cranking out microbrews long enough to develop a loyal cult following, not to mention the predictable pack of bad-mouthers who love to trash anything that grows too large and corporate. The Dogfish empire has, without question, expanded quickly since its founding in 1995. The company’s smartest move was, in 2002, to relocate its brewery to a 100,000-square-foot facility in Milton, Del., which now has the capacity to produce enough beer to distribute to more than 20 states.
The increased production has opened the door for Joe Hospital and his partners, who have signed an exclusive agreement to franchise Dogfish Head restaurants, including a second alehouse that they expect to open in Falls Church by the end of the year. The partners are experienced enough to know they don’t exactly need a white-tablecloth dining room to attract pub patrons, but they’re ambitious enough to hire their own chef, develop their own recipes, and opt not to rely exclusively on the mothership in Rehoboth for an identity.
Still, you might question their business acumen in opening an alehouse in Montgomery County. Not only does MoCo require all alcohol to move through its complicated (and pricey) distribution system, but the county also requires all restaurants with liquor licenses to generate at least half their gross sales from food. If that weren’t enough, the location that Hospital and crew selected—a clubby, two-story structure on W. Diamond Avenue—has been snakebit. “There’s been a succession of progressively failed restaurants [at the location], one worse than the next,” says Hospital.
But one year after opening last September, the Dogfish Head Alehouse has exceeded its partners’ projections, and food sales, Hospital says, presently outpace beer sales by nearly 2 to 1. This statistic might lead you to believe that the dishes are a notch or two above standard alehouse offerings, that the menu might draw you to Gaithersburg as much as a draw from those shark-shaped pull handles. Don’t believe it.
When compared to their drink partners, namely those complex Dogfish Head brews on tap (seven regulars, some seasonal, and other beers available by bottle), the appetizers, pizzas, and entrees seem one-dimensional. The watery jambalaya—a chicken-sausage-shrimp combo over, ahem, penne pasta—prefers to impress you with mere heat. The Dogfish Trio of beer-battered grouper, cod, and shrimp is a plodding platter of heavily coated, mostly indistinguishable fish. The slices of wood-grilled steak draped over the roasted garlic Caesar salad look mouthwatering, all thin and rosy and moist, but they’re as chewy as jerky.
The wood grill is the focal point of the kitchen. The unsauced, grayish-pink salmon sports polite grill marks but little trace of smokiness; its pleasures are derived from an all-engulfing butteriness. The half-pound burger on a grilled focaccia roll—served with your choice of toppings—is a rich, meaty mouthful all right, but you can find a half-dozen better examples of this standard pub sandwich much closer to home. Even the pizzas are wood-grilled; in fact, the pesto-sauced “Chesapeake” with lump crab and asparagus would have been terrific if not for its flaccid, limp crust, an all-too-common problem with these pies.
MoCo might not like to hear this, but the bar should be your first and only stop at Dogfish Head Alehouse. Pull up a stool and ask the bartender for a snifter of 90 Minute IPA, a clear, amber-colored liquid whose hoppy bitterness is perfectly balanced with a caramel-like sweetness. If you drink enough of these mighty beers first, which run as high as 20 percent alcohol by volume, you might even dull your taste buds enough to dare crack open a menu.
Dogfish Head Alehouse, 800 W. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg. (301) 963-4847.
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