A Consistent Kitchen--with Rich Sauces, That Is

DINING OUT

September 12, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Manor Tavern, 15819 Old York Road, Monkton. (410) 771-8155. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$8.25; entrees, $16.50-$18.50.

By the time you've traveled north on Dulaney Valley Road, past where it turns into Jarrettsville Pike and finally onto Monkton Road, you feel as if you're farther than half an hour away from Baltimore. There, in the middle of Maryland's most beautiful countryside, you come upon the Manor Tavern, nestled by the side of the road and surrounded by rolling green fields.

From its beginnings in the 18th century as a stable, the building has been in turn a blacksmith shop, a private house, a general store and a saloon. Now it's the home of not one but two restaurants; when you call for reservations, you're asked, "Light fare or fine dining?"

Most restaurants no longer treat the two as mutually exclusive. Or perhaps the Manor Tavern simply thinks that when people are having a special night out, they're willing to stop worrying about calories and cholesterol. So if you opt for "fine dining," as we did, plan on having an extravagantly rich meal. Otherwise, you may want to be seated in the other restaurant, where pastas, salads and sandwiches are served.

For a place where you should plan to spend at least $30 a person, the Manor Tavern is curiously unprepossessing. It has many of the trappings of a country inn -- cozy little rooms, pretty wallpaper, sconces, fresh flowers, candles and handsomely set tables. But some of the missteps were startling. The sign on the men's room door was missing, and someone had scrawled "men's" with a crayon. A hole in the pretty wallpaper was covered with plastic tape. We were seated near the kitchen with a door covered only by a half curtain -- not a view you want with your stuffed quail. Worst of all were the wineglasses noticeably smudged with fingerprints; one looked as if it hadn't been washed at all.

We wanted wine with dinner, and we wanted to order it after we had seen the menu. This threw our waiter for a loop. He explained that he had been told to take drink orders, then bring a small salad -- he assured us several times it was complimentary -- and then we would get to look at the menu. It sounded like a way to extend the cocktail hour to me; but we got with the program, had the pretty bit of salad with tarragon vinaigrette and then were finally given menus. (The waiter wanted to know whether we wanted freshly ground or pre-ground pepper with our salad. Decisions, decisions.)

A "Manor Sampler for Two" gave us a chance to taste several of the starters -- but not as many as we expected to, because the promised escargots were missing without explanation. Two clams casino were inedible, judging by the smell alone. But steamed shrimp were fine and fat; and the calamari crisp and light. Artichoke bottoms and mushroom caps stuffed with crab imperial were delicious little mouthfuls.

Of everything we had, I liked a first course of crab Norfolk best. Backfin lumps had been tossed with bits of ham in a light white wine sauce and then arranged over toast points. The dish was perfectly seasoned; and decorated with a sprig of fresh thyme, it looked pretty as well.

With our first courses we were brought bread and two large ice-cream scoops of butter. It was our first clue that this wasn't going to be a diet meal. Take the lovely, fresh orange roughy fillet baked with a fine crab imperial on a bed of fresh spinach. It not only had a plateful of lemon butter sauce but the fish was topped with a rich hollandaise.

Two tender quail were roasted and stuffed with Boursin cheese, fat little shrimp and crab. So far, so good, but they were drowned in their thick, cheesy mornay sauce -- pools of it.

A special of the day, veal Veronique, began with delicate scallops of veal. Garnished with shrimp and red grapes, they got a little lost in the vast lake of rich, winy sauce.

At least the kitchen is consistent.

Of course, you could order the filet mignon without the bearnaise sauce, or fish blackened or grilled without butter or sauce; but it does seem to be all or nothing here.

Our dinners came with a little plate of rice and mixed vegetables. And, of course, the tiny salad before we got to look at the menu. If that's not enough salad for you, you can have one of several regular-size ones for around $4.

Pastries are baked nearby at a bakery run by a former chef at the Manor Tavern. We wanted to try the blueberry mousse, but our waiter explained that we wouldn't be happy with it because the kitchen had added "too much stabilizer."

We were very happy with the fresh chocolate cake and cheesecake -- pretty straightforward choices, but better than a raspberry mousse cake that tasted of sugar and nothing else.

Next: Lone Star Grill

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