Soups and fried chicken are standouts at Ale House

November 27, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We picked a terrible night to go to the Olney Ale House, but it had nothing to do with the restaurant itself. The problem was the rain. We had been told that a Sunday-afternoon drive past horse farms on Route 108 is part of the charm of a visit to this Montgomery County restaurant, but the rain was coming down so hard that taking the scenic route would have been futile.

Owner Anita Virkus opened the Ale House in 1973. There's still a touch of hippie wholesomeness on her menu, notably in the lemon-tahini salad dressing and macrobiotic rice pudding.

The Olney Ale House is not fancy, but there's something appealing about its scaled-down atmosphere. We were seated next to the stone fireplace in the back room, which was painted chocolate brown and decorated with oil paintings for sale. We were told the crowd can be quite eclectic -- from theater patrons to bikers in black leather. So is the drink selection, which runs the gamut from natural sodas and organic Chardonnay to hot cider and micro brews by the pitcher, pint or mug.

Some people come just for the beef stew and freshly baked oatmeal-molasses bread. We could see why, once we cut into the loaf of soft, dark bread. Dunking a slice into the home-style stew on a rainy night was pure comfort. The stew was made with big chunks of beef and plenty of vegetables in a light gravy.

But the best dish we tried was the Maryland free-range fried chicken. We're still wondering how this half a chicken was almost entirely boned with the skin intact. Each bite was moist and succulent under the thin, crisp coating.

Soups seem to be a good choice at the Ale House, too. A mug of Southwestern bean was seasoned with a healthy dose of cayenne, a nice contrast to smooth cannellini beans. Paired with a large Govinda salad, it could have made a meal. We liked the mix of feta, artichoke hearts, red peppers and sunflower seeds on baby greens. We liked the homemade dressings even more -- nutty-tasting lemon-tahini, smooth and mild red ranch, and chunky blue.

Prices are relatively low here, considering the portions. The appetizer platters we tried were huge. Nachos were piled with vegetarian chili, Cheddar cheese, sour cream and chunky salsa with big slices of jalapeno. Salsa was on the winter sampler, too, along with smooth hummus and hot spinach-artichoke dip, our favorite. It was wonderful -- creamy but not too rich, with intense artichoke flavor.

From the vegetarian section, we tried the portobello sandwich, topped with lettuce, onions and melted Swiss. This was one case where we would have preferred an alternative to the oatmeal-molasses bread. Even toasted, the bread turned mushy, soaked through with mushroom juices and red pepper sauce. A roll would have been better.

The only disaster was a plate of grilled shrimp cakes. These crumbly patties tasted like shrimp-flavored hush puppies -- no match for a decent crab cake.

We were so full by the end of our meal, we had to force

ourselves to order dessert. The brown rice pudding might be a bit too Spartan for most palates. Our helpful waitress said it improves with a touch of cream. Creamy cheesecake topped with thick cinnamon-fudge sauce, and blueberry ice cream with the hidden crunch of white chocolate needed no improvements, though. Somehow, we found room for them.

Olney Ale House

2000 Sandy Spring Road, Olney


Hours: Open Tuesdays through Sundays for lunch and dinner (closed Thanksgiving Day)

Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$6.75; entrees, $3.95-$13.50.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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