An Oddly Inconsistent Special-occasion Place

DINING OUT

January 16, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Hersh's Orchard Inn, 1528 E. Joppa Road, (410) 823-0384. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.25-$9.95; entrees, $10.95-$25.95.

Hersh's Orchard Inn is a restaurant full of inconsistencies. One minute you think this is the best meal you've had in ages, the next you wonder how a restaurant of this quality could possibly serve -- for example -- a clam chowder that tastes as if it came out of a can.

It starts as you're seated at your table. At first glance, it's a sophisticated, luxurious dining room. The walls are covered with a rich burgundy striped wallpaper. The soft lighting and gleaming brass rails are reflected in mirrors along one wall. The carpeting is plush, the tables formally set. Then you notice the leather of the comfortable chairs is worse than worn -- it has large holes in it. Odd in a restaurant where you can easily spend $20 for your main course.

Hersh's Orchard Inn has good live music, which filters in from the lounge to the dining room. But the singer has to contend with the canned music piped into the dining room. Doesn't anyone on the staff notice?

That's the only complaint we have about the service, though. From the maitre d' to the busboy -- and especially our waitress -- the staff is warm, courteous and professional. It's the one area where this restaurant isn't inconsistent.

Hersh's Orchard Inn is fundamentally a special-night-out restaurant, serving American food, where dinner for two with drinks and wine can cost $100 and you don't even think about the calories and cholesterol. But to keep up with the times, both financially and healthwise, the restaurant has added a variety of chicken dishes to its prime beef, lobster and crab selections, plus entree salads and pastas for those who want lighter fare. Mondays to Thursdays a four-course dinner is available for $19, which might include rack of lamb, beef tenderloin or veal scaloppine. Ordering from the regular menu you could spend twice that.

We did order from the regular menu, and that gave us a chance to sample the oysters Rockefeller. These were wonderful oysters -- fresh, plump and tasting of the sea. And I loved the simple treatment, basically just fresh spinach and melted butter. Too bad the dish was gritty -- whether it was the oysters or the spinach I couldn't tell.

At Hersh's Orchard Inn, the escargots and mushroom caps are just an excuse for the pool of addictively good garlic-butter sauce. There's also a perfectly sized portion of green fettuccine with a rich cream and cheese sauce for a first course. With first courses this fine, how can the kitchen turn out such ordinary clam chowder?

Some dishes here strike you as bargains, like the chicken a la Orchard -- a wonderfully tender, ivory-white boneless chicken breast arranged with artichoke hearts and fresh mushrooms in a delicate white wine sauce that fairly sang with flavor. For your $14 you also get a vegetable and salad. (Not a very interesting salad, I have to admit. It was mostly iceberg lettuce.)

But then there was the planked steak that cost $26 -- as far as I could tell, just because it was served on an oak platter. The junior filet mignon was good but not remarkable. Mashed potatoes were piped around the edges of the board, and steamed broccoli and carrots were arranged with grated horseradish beside the meat. That was it. The promised onion rings never arrived.

Hersh's Orchard Inn does classic Maryland fare, like crab imperial, very well. The kitchen knows if you start with great lumps of crab meat all you have to do is toss them lightly with imperial sauce and bake them in their coquille shell just until piping hot. When the chef ventures into deeper waters, like a special that evening called "grilled swordfish island," he doesn't always meet with success. The topping of sliced stuffed olives, golden raisins and capers didn't quite work (and the promised fresh mint was missing). The grilled swordfish itself was beautifully fresh but overcooked to dryness. And the wild rice cakes on the side were tough and chewy.

When you first enter Hersh's Orchard Inn you're likely to catch a glimpse of the pastry cart. It's so spectacular you might be tempted to skip straight to dessert. And it's so tempting you may forget that there's fresh fruit, including strawberries and melon on the menu, plus various ice cream sundaes, snowballs and even a frozen eclair.

Eclairs seem to be a specialty: There was one whole tray of non-frozen ones on the pastry cart. Unfortunately, ours was too salty to eat -- a one-time mistake, I hope. The rest of our selections were much better: a fresh, moist chocolate pyramid cake; a concoction of half bittersweet chocolate mousse and half white chocolate; and a tiramisu cake, a variation on the currently trendy dessert that's not so soggy as the original -- perhaps I should say "not so moist" for those of you who love tiramisu.

If you don't have room for dessert, finish off your meal with the Orchard Inn's coffee. Both regular and decaffeinated are some of the best around.

! Next: Tersiguel's

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