Full house for food at reborn log cabin Restaurant: Two cuisines, Greek and haute American, work well side by side at Hunters Lodge.

November 23, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

You have to wonder why the Hunters Lodge parking lot is full every night.

Here's a former Chinese restaurant that's been converted back into the log cabin it was before it was a Chinese restaurant. It sits smack dab on Baltimore National Pike among the strip malls -- not the most scenic location in the world.

The rustic interior is warm and cozy in a country fried steak kind of way. The tables are quite close together, with white tablecloths over cheerful red ones. A baby cries fretfully in one corner. There are hundreds of places just like the Hunters Lodge. So why is every table filled on a midweek night?

The answer, of course, lies with the food. It's a most amazing combination -- given the setting -- of homey Greek dishes and haute contemporary American.

On the menu you have spanakopita and duck confit. Moussaka and rack of lamb with port demi-glace and a potato and garlic napoleon. Stuffed grape leaves and garlic prawns over creamy polenta with a vegetable ragout.

The owners are Greek. After you know that, the Mediterranean food is no surprise. But the other dishes are the work of chef Jeffrey Crise, whom many will remember as a chef-owner of the Ambassador when it was serving some very good food in the early '90s.

Crise is an artist. His canvases are big white plates and bowls. A fat chunk of braised salmon, fresh and moist, is arranged with barley-studded risotto and a melange of fall vegetables. Tender white medallions of veal have a pretty, buttery sauce and a mash of carrots, turnips and celery root. He adds a dusting of chopped parsley around the edge of the plate, decorates it with little dots of caviar, finishes it off with sprigs of rosemary or thyme.

I liked the seasonal feeling of the menu, with its emphasis on root vegetables and main courses like roast pheasant. The juicy bird had a dark, fruity but not too sweet sauce of lingonberries and rhubarb; and with it came a rosemary-scented square of savory bread pudding.

Don't write off the homey Greek dishes, though. The tyropita -- hot little pillows of flaky phyllo dough with a soft filling of feta, fontina and Parmesan -- were superb. They were paired with a salad of baby greens and chopped tomatoes and onions.

And to finish: a fabulous creme brulee with cold, quivery custard under a hot, crisp caramelized topping. True, one could argue that surrounding it with creme anglaise was overkill, but what a way to go.

I can't say everything is perfect. Serve white fluff bread if you must, but then don't give us trendy herbed olive oil to dip it in. The soup of the day, asparagus, was a flavorful, thick, rich puree; but it did seem odd to be eating asparagus soup out of season. Crispy shrimp a la Michel Richard (coated with Greek "shredded wheat" and then deep fried) were wonderful, but the sauce they were placed on contained too much mustard. A beautiful chocolate pate dessert was simply too bittersweet.

Still, these seem like quibbles when you think about having a place like this in your neighborhood, where you can go in jeans and take the kids. They'll be happy with the pasta marinara while you indulge in the New York strip steak with a Gorgonzola sauce, sun-dried tomato polenta and wild mushroom duxelles. And coming soon: additions to the menu that will include more Mediterranean food and game dishes like coffee-barbecued venison chops and roasted squab with sweet corn cakes.

Hunters Lodge

Where: 9445 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, every night for dinner, Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $5.50-$9.95; entrees, $9.95-23.95; major vTC credit cards

Call: 410-461-4990

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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