We’re not sure who first thought up the idea of fried pickles, but we’ve decided we approve. Just saying the name of this Deep South appetizer makes you smile. And they’re actually pretty tasty.
Fried battered pickles with a remoulade dipping sauce ($5.50) are a specialty of the Ale House, a low-key, off-beat restaurant pub in the center of Amesbury. The place opened a few blocks away in 2007 and moved last year to its current spot on Main Street. It has two sister restaurants up the hill: the Barking Dog Bar and Grill and, at its previous location, the Firehouse Grill.
The Ale House’s new site is a cavernous space with a rosewood bar, exposed brick walls, and a high stamped-tin ceiling with mezzanine seating just below it. The space used to be the Roost, an occasional jazz club, and after that, briefly, the Powow River Grille.
Three of the six people who keep the Ale House running, according to its website, are CIA graduates - as in Culinary Institute of America, not the spy agency. The fried pickles are just one indication that these folks aren’t afraid to do things a little differently.
For educational purposes, we ended up ordering three different deep-fried appetizers. Our favorite was the pickles, which were very hot and no weirder, really, than tempura squash. The shaved onion rings with bourbon horseradish ketchup were crisp and shoelace-thin ($6.50). Ancho-dusted Belgian frites with lime ($5.50) turned out not be anchovy-flavored french fries, to the disappointment of one of our party of four, but it was probably just as well. (Ancho is a dried chili pepper, although we couldn’t really detect it.)
Another off-the-beaten-track app was called Great Hill Bleu, a tasty plate of mild local blue cheese with crackers and chewy bits of fig ($3.25). Rounding out our starters was a pair of draft beers that were new to us: a Dogfish Head IPA ($5) and a Kulmbacher EKU pilsner ($6). One of our group, an occasional home brewer, followed these up with a “well-hopped’’ Oppigards lager from Sweden ($9), mainly because he could.
In fact, just reading the beer menu at the Ale House is part of an evening’s entertainment. The bar keeps two dozen brews on tap, and the selection changes weekly. The extensive beer list specifies the alcohol content of each offering. One $13 bottle of Canadian beer, at 9.5 percent, is called Dieu Du Ciel Rigor Mortis. We passed.
Of the entrées, we immediately chose the two highlighted as Ale House signature dishes. One was a hit: a plate of balsamic braised beef short ribs ($18.50), which came with parmesan risotto and sautéed spinach. The meat was tangy and fall-apart tender. The other, lobster sliders, was four modest portions of lobster salad on mini-hamburger buns with thin, crispy fries ($17.50). It was probably only worth it if you’re someone who’s crazy about lobster salad.
The shepherd’s pie with braised short ribs, mashed potatoes, and al-dente corn and peas ($13.50 with a side salad) was comfort food at its best, rich and satisfying. A spicy chicken salad entrée ($10.50) was decent but nothing unusual.
All in all, the portions weren’t oppressively large, so we shared a huge piece of warm toffee pudding cake ($6), which was delicious, we all agreed.
The dining room was never close to half full, but it seemed lively nonetheless - maybe it was the noise bouncing off the tin ceiling. Weekend nights could get pretty loud, we suspect. With bar tables in front and booths in back, the Ale House is relaxed, comfortable, and dark. Maybe too dark. Before our eyes adjusted to the dimness in our booth, we had to use a flashlight to read our menus.
COCO McCABE AND DOUG STEWART