As the waitress passed the prime rib under my husband's nose and set the sizzling plate in front of him, he inhaled and found the aroma familiar.
It took him a few moments, but the memory came back. The aroma was from Hunt's Restaurant, a bar more than anything else, in his hometown in southern Illinois.
He hadn't been to Hunt's in six years, shortly before it became a parking lot. On the few occasions we've been back since, we've driven by, lamenting the demise of the home of what my husband considered the best prime rib he'd ever eaten, and he'd eaten a good deal of it at Hunt's. Having had it several times, I couldn't argue.
So it was surprising that this fond, old memory would find its match in White Marsh Mall.
Sir Walter Raleigh offers little on the outside to hint at the good food inside. I've often walked past its entrance on my way into the mall without paying it much attention.
Once inside, though, it doesn't seem like a shopping center restaurant. A fireplace glows in the clubby cocktail lounge. The main dining room is large and part of it has an atrium ceiling, from which hang lights, plants and slowly turning fans. Bric-a-brac adorns the print wallpaper and the table tops are tiled.
It is well designed and well maintained. It is relaxing.
After drinks, we began with an order of Onion Rings ($3.50). While they weren't homemade and were a little greasy, they were saved by an excellent dipping sauce -- tangy and a bit sweet with flavors of mustard and horseradish.
Next, we moved to the salad bar. It was the encyclopedic kind with a Caesar salad, fresh fruit, more than half a dozen dressings and just about anything you'd want to put atop exceptionally fresh lettuce. It was late in the evening and some of the veggies looked a bit tired, but everything we tried tasted fine.
Then came my entree, a Scallop Casserole ($14.95), and the Prime Rib ($15.95 for a regular cut).
My casserole consisted of 18 to 20 large scallops, lumped together and broiled under a bread crumb topping. They looked beautiful, but were a little spongy.
The scallops certainly paled next to the prime rib. My husband's end cut, though not huge, was virtually fat-free. How often can you say that about a piece of prime rib? And it was big enough that the leftovers became his lunch the next day.
As enticing as the aroma was, the taste was even better. Seldom does beef served in Eastern restaurants reach this Midwestern level of tenderness and taste. ''Mouth-watering'' comes to mind. It was served with an equally good whipped horseradish sauce.
The baked potato and french fries were average. The fries appeared to be fresh but didn't pack a lot of flavor.
Desserts, as so often happens, were the low point of the evening.
His Chocolate Mousse ($2.50) tasted as if it had come from a mix, with only a semblance of chocolate and not much else. My Mud Pie ($3.25) was a huge, rock-hard combination of coffee ice cream and chocolate frosting with whipped topping and hot fudge. It was almost impossible to cut and had a strange taste; my husband thought better of it.
Our bill, with three drinks, two glasses of wine and two coffees, came to $64.11. Throughout the meal, the service had been prompt, friendly and efficient. Again, better than you'd expect to find in a mall.
*** Sir Walter Raleigh
White Marsh Mall
Hours: Lunch served 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations: Accepted only for groups of 10 or more.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.