Open only since the end of May, Of Love & Regret is operating with admirable maturity, confidence and grace. It's a wonderful gathering space for Baltimore, and it's putting out some of the best burgers and good cheer in town.
Plain but not spartan, the interior space suggests the lunchroom of a benevolently run factory, where everyone respects the work they do and each other. There are a half-dozen tables on either side of the long, bar. A community table with high stools sits in the room's center. Diners arrive early, and the room grows loud and merry.
Of Love & Regret sits on the border between Canton and Brewers Hill, the neighborhood where its part-owner Brian Strumke grew up. The founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Strumke is known in beer circles as a gypsy, or vagabond, brewer. There is no Stillwater brewery; Strumke leases the equipment and space of others worldwide, working in collaboration with brewers he admires. Of Love & Regret is the name of a beer he created in the Belgian village of Beerzel.
But Strumke has stayed attached to his roots in Baltimore, where he is known to be a generous collaborator and supporter of Baltimore's chefs. At this new pub, Strumke has entered into a permanent (we hope) collaboration with Ted Stelzenmuller, the chef-owner of Jack's Bistro.
It's a beautiful marriage so far. Stelzenmuller shines at Of Love & Regret in a supporting role. Here, he has come up with a menu that flatters Strumke's beer without condescending to beer-hall fare. That's an achievement in and of itself.
Still, there are some doozies, mostly among the appetizers, things like the crispy pig ears and grilled duck tongues. Even then, there are approachable things like cavatappi and cheese with pork and Green Lip mussels in a full-bodied broth of clams and Stillwater Cellar Door, which carries its own aroma of white sage.
The tasty duck tongues are worth a try. Served with a ponzu aioli and grilled scallions, they come with eating instructions. While some people, you are told, are OK with the cartilage, you can easily avoid it with a flick of your teeth. A savory Korean pancake made with shredded pork, jalapenos and cilantro makes a great entree to share, as do firm, golf-ball size fritters filled with rock shrimp and corn, served with a Key lime mustard.
A salad composed of cucumber ribbons landed just a little thickly, its Caesar dressing needing a little anchovy oomph. The attraction here were the warm, puffy croutons constructed from feta cheese.
You may find yourself gravitating toward the burgers and specials at Of Love & Regret. There are five entrees on the permanent menu — a sous vide sirloin steak, a duo of fried chicken, a grilled Faroe Island salmon, a Singaporean rice dish and a Moroccan lentils dish. I can't put my finger on it, but these don't feel like an ideal five. I tried only the salmon, which was impressively moist but under seasoned.
The burgers are thick, juicy, well-seasoned and marvelous. There are five in all, tricked out with Moroccan spices and goat cheese, pulled pork and smoked Gouda and bacon or, best of all, with brie and a brandied poached pear. Know, however, that the burgers are served on homemade croissants, which tend to fall apart even as they're giving you buttery pleasure.
With its glowing coconut and bright spices, a Penang Curry Noodle Bowl is a fantastic hot-summer special, the kind of thing that shows Stelzenmuller at his best. It pairs perfectly, as will almost everything at Of Love & Regret, with the Stillwater Artisanal "Table Beer," which Strumke developed specifically as an everyday restaurant beer.
Strumke has supplemented his own specialty drafts from around the world and from here in Baltimore. There are 23 drafts in all, and the good, kind bar staff has taken to referring to them by number — "Number 15 went up, but we replaced it with something just as good" — the way a mechanic would a piece of equipment. They're all beers you want to know better, and all are available by the half-pour.
There are further collaborations. Strumke's sister, Brenda, is a part-owner and positive nightly presence. The fourth owner is Leigh Travers, whose husband, Ryan, is running the bar program. The Traverses were coaxed down to Baltimore by Brian Strumke from a bar in Brunswick, Maine, called the Lion's Pride.
The waiters and bartenders behave like full partners in a project they believe in. Trust them when they encourage you to try dessert.
Topped with caramel ice cream and toffee pieces, a brandy poached pear gets a kick from a chocolate sauce laced with fleur de sel. A velvety smooth and smoky dark chocolate sauce and cherries macerated in Stillwater Existent are the best thing that ever happened to a dessert waffle.
Of Love & Regret might be the first pub in Baltimore where no one ever will ever get drunk. The customers are treated like, and even expected to be, part of the collaboration, too, whether it's trying one of Ryan Travers' beer cocktails, which are listed as "craft concoctions," or simply behaving like ladies and gentlemen.
Of Love & Regret
Where: 1028 S. Conkling St., Canton
Contact: 410-327-0760, http://www.ofloveandregret.com
Hours: Open daily for dinner
Prices: Prices: Appetizers, $7.50 -$11; Entrees, $14 -$20
[Key: Outstanding: 4; Good: 3; Fair or uneven: 2; Poor: 1]