Candle Light Inn, 1835 Frederick Road, Catonsville, (410) 788-6076. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for dinner only. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.
The Baltimore area doesn't have enough restaurants where you can eat outside, to my mind -- and the comparatively few where you can are mostly cafes or crab houses. (Discounting Harborplace, of course.) To me, the Candle Light Inn's greatest drawing card is its dining-room-size gazebo where you can have a formal dinner outside on a balmy summer evening. Maybe by the time you read this, the Candle Light Inn's customers will be forced inside by heat, humidity and bugs. But I don't think so. It's surrounded by trees and plants, flowering impatiens and azaleas, and there are ceiling fans -- it's hard to imagine it wouldn't always be nicer eating outdoors.
If you do want to be indoors, though, you can choose from any number of pleasant, old-fashioned rooms. They're more formally set up than the deck, with cloth napery and candles. Indoors or out, the reasons to eat at the Candle Light Inn are the setting and the good-natured, attentive staff -- among the nicest I've run into. The food is too uneven to recommend without qualification.
If I went again, I'd order crab in any of its various forms. In spite of the high price of back fin, the kitchen didn't scrimp on it. A hot seafood antipasto for two ($15.95) featured, among other things, four mushroom caps piled high with lumps of crab meat in a creamy imperial sauce. They can be had separately as a first course, as can the clams casino. But I would skip the unpleasantly gritty clams. Luckily the sauteed scallops and shrimp were perfectly cooked, buttery and tender, so there was more than enough for a first course. We also sampled the bisque of the day ($3.50), this day shrimp. Like several of our choices it wasn't bad -- hot, thick but not thick enough to pass the spoon test, generous with shrimp. It's just that you might want more than not bad for the money.
With just a bit more attention to detail, this could be a very good restaurant. A perfect example, the veal Oscar ($19.95). The veal was tender and white, but tasted poached rather than sauteed -- which would have been OK if it hadn't been dredged in flour. The fresh asparagus on top was cooked to tender crispness, and lump crab meat had been applied lavishly. Its bearnaise sauce, however, had curdled. It looked dreadful. The flavor was fine, but it lacked bearnaise's characteristic silkiness.
Fresh tuna Cajun style ($15.95) had the perfect balance of spices for my taste -- zingy but not so overpowering that the good fresh flavor of the fish was lost. Alas, it was cooked to the point of dryness.
Stuffed shrimp ($17.95), recommended by our waitress, could have stolen the show. They had been generously stuffed with that good crab imperial. Too bad they, too, were overcooked.
Attention is paid to the vegetables, which isn't always the case. Broccoli was steamed just to tenderness, highly seasoned zucchini was still slightly crisp around the edges. But attention isn't paid to everything: Our butter had taken on odors from elsewhere and was inedible as far as I was concerned.
The desserts we had were made by Renaissance Pastries. Tiramisu comes in cake form, a tidier version of the rich, Italian puddinglike dessert. A triple chocolate mousse cake is just what the doctor ordered if you happen to be suffering from massive chocolate withdrawal. The only dud: a cheesecake that was properly creamy and rich and had gorgeous fresh strawberries, but was topped with artificial whipped cream and thick, sweet strawberry sauce.
In spite of food that sometimes faltered, we ended up having a good time. The setting is so pleasant, and the staff went out of its way to make sure we were happy. When, for example, the hostess discovered the chardonnay we had ordered hadn't been chilled, she substituted a more expensive bottle without charging us. And when the owner came around at the end and asked how the meal was, you got the feeling he really cared. Then he slipped away when he saw we were deep in conversation.
$ Next: Afternoon teas