As Good Or Better Than It's Ever Been

DINING OUT

April 24, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Fiori, 100 Painters Mill Road, Owings Mills, (410) 363-3131. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every night for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.75-$6.50; entrees, $10.95-$19.50. ***1/2

I've given up trying to keep the Country Fare Group straight. It's the restaurant consortium that at one time or other has included the Country Fare Inn, King's Contrivance, Brass

Elephant, Fiori, City Lights, Pearson's and probably other places that don't come to mind at the moment.

The important thing to remember is that the people who have been involved with the consortium are veterans of the restaurant business. They've provided us with some superb meals over the years.

Fiori, which moved a few years ago from its original site near Reisterstown to the 18th-century mansion in Owings Mills it now occupies, has been in the past one of the most reliable of the group. On my last visit, it was as good or better than it's ever been.

Given the historic setting and the often elegant food, you'd expect Fiori to be quite a dressy restaurant, but that's not the case.

Yes, the gracious rooms of the house have been decorated with an eye to its history. The front dining room where we were seated has been painted cream with Williamsburg green trim, and the period furniture and hand-carved mantel look very much at home. Gold-framed impressionist paintings line the walls. (OK, wrong period. But they suggest genteel age.)

The original wide-board floors, however, have been left bare; and they're in such poor shape the room seems a bit shabby. The point is that if the room isn't perfectly dressed up, you don't have to be either. Everyone in our dining room, anyway, was quite casually turned out.

Fiori's menu, like the room, is a mix: in this case, of the sophisticated and the downright homey. You can get angel-hair pasta with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts or ground beef lasagna. Veal comes with dried figs and sauteed red pepper or parmigiana style, breaded with cheese and tomato sauce. Chef Stanley Serrao, who has worked at Rudys' 2900 and King's Contrivance, recently redid the menu. Supplemented by daily specials, it's short and to the point -- the point being good food made from the freshest ingredients.

People think of Fiori as an Italian restaurant, but it's more than pasta and pesto. Our best dish of the evening was grilled rockfish with salsa. The smoky grilled flavor of the tender white flesh is enhanced by a spicy tomato and onion salsa, and it has a green chili puree thrown in for good measure. A smooth red pepper cream softens and enriches the strong flavors.

For a first course, mushrooms are sauteed in wine with minced bacon, onion and herbs, then wrapped in a little pouch of phyllo pastry and baked. The result is boldly flavorful, with an intriguing textural contrast between the sauteed mushrooms and crisp pastry sheets. It's sauced with a light, spicy tomato coulis.

Fresh, fat little mussels come in what's called a basil pesto -- actually a spicy, sea-green cream that manages to be at once rich and delicate.

Fiori's porcini angel-hair pasta is everything a first-course pasta should be: delicious, and just enough of it to whet the appetite, not satiate it. The pasta is tossed with crumbled Boursin cheese, a bit of chopped fresh tomato, slivers of porcini mushroom and toasted pine nuts. It will leave you begging for more.

Fiori has homemade pastas for a main course, like herb ravioli. The decorative little pillows are filled with minced chicken, mushrooms and fontina cheese, then lightly bathed in a butter sauce flavored with tomato and kalamata olives.

Although I've heard others rave about veal Fiori, it was the only dish that disappointed. The veal scallops were tender and sauteed to a pretty gold, and I enjoyed the red pepper strips and mushrooms with it. But the Marsala sauce was sweet to begin with, and adding slices of dried fig made it even sweeter -- too sweet for me.

Dinners come with rice or crisp little potatoes that have been marinated and grilled. You can get the house salad or one of the special salads for $2.50 extra. The watercress with slices of poached pear and a raspberry vinaigrette is not to be missed.

Desserts didn't quite reach the heights of the rest of our meal. A slice of chocolate mocha cake was slightly dry, and an elegant Grand Marnier cake didn't need vanilla jimmies on its side.

Fiori may be the only restaurant with Italian roots in the area that doesn't serve tiramisu as a staple. The trifle is a close and elegant cousin, with strawberries instead of espresso and custard instead of mascarpone cheese.

The service was unobtrusive -- not formal, but quite good. I also want to put in a good word for the manager, who let me use the phone at the entrance desk rather than directing me to the pay phone downstairs. A small point, but I appreciated it.

$ Next: The Golden Arm

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