Funny. A kitchen that can turn out flawless scallops falters on rice pilaf, serving tasteless, dry kernels not as flavorful as most packaged rice mixes.
Funny. A kitchen that can produce succulent veal in a beautiful bearnaise trips over a baked potato, serving a shriveled spud that stayed too long at the steam table.
Funny, isn't it?
But that's what we found at a recent meal at Cacao Lane in Ellicott City. The hard stuff came off without a hitch, but the seemingly simple side dishes didn't make it. Perhaps someone wasn't paying attention.
Too bad, because the kitchen's missteps left us unimpressed, overall, with this longtime Howard County favorite.
Indeed, our introduction to Cacao Lane left us wondering. Because of its layout in three separate buildings, we were ushered from the front door past the bar, across the back of two of those buildings and into a dining room. Along the path were two doors and some "watch-your-steps" from the hostess. The entry into the dimly lit dining room was through the waitress' station.
This may be charming to some. I found it disconcerting, a distraction.
We were seated, at last, in a room with stone walls and a brick floor. I found it cozy; my husband thought it was oppressively dark. The deep display windows might have sported shoes or baked goods in another day; now, they are dressed in lace and greenery, with a table for two in each. There is a certain charm about all of this.
Cacao Lane has a small but interesting menu, with chicken and seafood predominating, and a sampling of steaks, lamb chops and veal dishes. The night we were there, a sheet of handwritten specials accompanied the menu.
Bowing to the break in the weather, we began with soup -- Black Bean ($2.95) and French Onion ($3.95). Both lacked seasoning.
The bean soup, served with just a sprinkling of diced onion, was thick with the darkly rich flavor that is its character. It had a hint of ham, but seemingly nothing else. I would have preferred some spice and definitely more onion.
Although the onions were perfectly tender and sweet in my husband's onion soup, the broth was incredibly bland and the cheese plentiful but nearly tasteless.
The salads, which came with our dinners, were small but fresh and colorful. The dressings were served on the side, which I think is considerate. My Dijon vinaigrette was very good with a tangy mustard taste. My husband, however, found the house creamy herb, once again, bland.
For entrees, I ordered Scallops San Cortez ($15.95) and my husband chose Veal St. James ($18.95), named, the menu told us, in memory of James Beard.
As I said earlier, the scallops were perfect -- so tender and sweet in a garlic butter and wine sauce. And they were plentiful, nearly two dozen good-sized scallops were tossed with shallots, mushrooms and parsley, which added color and texture to the dish. A forkful of the accompanying rice pilaf was enough; it never should have left the kitchen.
The Veal St. James was also a beautiful dish, with crab, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and Muenster cheese topping the veal scaloppine languishing in a rich Madeira and bearnaise sauce. The meat was just right; the crab, redolent of the Chesapeake; the sauce, a delightful accent. I think Beard would have been pleased.
The baked potato was in the same league as the rice. We should have ordered the zucchini.
Oh well, on to better things. Dessert.
My husband declared his Chocolate Mousse ($3.50) and my New York Cheesecake ($3.50) -- both made in-house -- unmitigated successes. I thought the cheesecake followed the pattern of unevenness we had experienced earlier. The filling was excellent, with a luscious creamy flavor, but the crust was dry and coarse.
His mousse did have a memorable chocolate flavor that lingered.
Our waitress was friendly, but somewhat forgetful. We waited a long time for our first courses; after that, the meal moved right along. The bill, with two cocktails, two glasses of chardonnay and two coffees, was just under $69.
As we left, we peeked into another dining room, which was obviously newer and brighter. I think we would have enjoyed our meal more had we been seated there.
Funny, isn't it?
** 1/2 Cacao Lane
8066 Main St., Ellicott City
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.
Smoking: No separate areas designated.