The building that houses Russell's Ltd. in Catonsville has had nearly as many lives as the proverbial cat. It began life around 1862 as a horse-car waiting room. In its last life before becoming Russell's in 1984, it was a disco.
Unfortunately, this semi-country, semi-suburban restaurant shows the strains of multiple personalities.
The bar that dominates the main room is long enough to accommodate a couple of softball teams. The tile floor that extends well into the dining area was probably once the line of demarcation between drinking and dancing.
My husband and I were seated in a small, raised area, which the waitress told us serves as a stage for bands on weekends. The spotlights overhead weren't turned on; given the difficulty we had in reading the menu, perhaps they should have been.
The adjacent dining room, which was closed the night we were there, looked far more inviting, with more of a "country" feel, than did the room we were in, which seemed unable to decide whether it was a dining room or an extension of the bar.
The room had multiple televisions, including one, sunk into a wall, which the bartender tuned in to some sporting event midway through our meal -- even though there was no one at that end of the bar and none of the few diners gave it any attention. We asked that the set be turned off and it was.
All these distractions might have been less of an issue if Russell's prices were not, in many instances, equal to those charged by restaurants with much more polished images.
The food was as contradictory as the surroundings. One course was mediocre; the next, very good.
We began with two soups: Maryland Crab ($3.95) and French Onion ($3.50). The crab soup, though nicely seasoned, had little crab and was watery. The onion soup was commonplace.
Next came salads, which were included with our entrees and were a pleasant surprise. Crisp, fresh, pretty, with above-average dressings.
The entrees were also good. My Fettuccine Alfredo ($9.95) had that wonderful Parmesan cheese edge so often missing in alfredos. The sauce, unlike other alfredo sauces, seemed to be more cream than thickener -- another nice touch.
My husband's Broiled Flounder Stuffed with Crab Imperial was cooked just the way he likes broiled fish, dry almost to the point of being overdone. I suspect some might find it overcooked, but he found it much better than usual. The crab imperial was nearly pure crab, but there was less than an ice cream scoop of it.
The fish alone would have been $11.95; with the stuffing it was $17.95 -- a price more fitting in a fine restaurant than in one where you have to ask to have the television over the bar turned off.
Our desserts, a cheesecake and a chocolate cake, were the weakest links in the meal. At $3.50 each, we deserved more than obviously thawed concoctions. Their once-frozen state was given away by their wetness, which, in the absence of any noticeable flavors, was their most obvious characteristic.
In all, our bill, with three drinks and half a carafe of house wine, was $61.27. Not cheap.
A word about the service: superb. Our waitress was professional and friendly, a combination lacking in restaurants of all price ranges. She was definitely a notch above her surroundings. When our entrees were ready but she was tied up with other diners, another waitress brought us our food. Another nice touch.
With more nice touches, some subtle improvements in the beginnings and the endings -- and a wall separating the dining room from the bar -- Russell's could offer diners a more pleasant, less frenetic experience. And more easily justify its prices.
1600 Frederick Road,
Hours: Open seven days a week. Light fare available 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dinner menu available 5 to 10 p.m.; limited light fare available 10 to midnight.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited.
Smoking area: No designated area.