When it's good, it can be very good Restaurant: At the Oregon Grille you'll find opulent surroundings, fine ingredients and imaginative preparations. But a recent dinner there was oddly uneven.

November 30, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The musical chairs trio of Hamilton's, the Milton Inn and Savannah has been getting all the press lately; but the restaurant everyone is talking about is the new Oregon Grille.

When Ted Bauer, owner of the Mt. Washington Tavern, decided he wanted to open a fine-dining restaurant, he chose as his site the Oregon General Store, a 19th-century structure at the entrance to the Oregon Ridge Park.

After a long and costly renovation, the Oregon Grille opened a couple of months ago with former Milton Inn chef Mark Henry in charge of the kitchen.

The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Don't even try to get a reservation on the weekend unless you do it a couple of weeks in advance.

I went with three friends early on a weekday night. This gave me a chance to wander around the restaurant before the crowds arrived.

While the building is a little closer to the highway and the exterior looks less weighted down with its history than I expected, the renovations inside are beautifully done. Handsome, conservative rooms are at once opulent and horse-country clubby.

We were seated in a wonderfully cozy little room with just a few tables and a fire flickering in the fireplace.

In the planning stages, the Oregon Grille was a steakhouse a la the Prime Rib; but after Bauer brought in Mark Henry, you knew the food would be more elaborate. And it is, although the menu focuses on serious steaks and chops.

So the elements are all there: a superb chef running the kitchen, wonderful prime meats and the freshest of seafood and other ingredients, imaginative but not too imaginative choices. Still, our meal was oddly uneven.

Here was a beautiful little rack of lamb ordered "pink" and arriving well-done. The rack was carved in the kitchen, so the plate should never have made it as far as the table. There was no sign of its promised zinfandel sauce.

Here was a fine fillet of salmon roasted on a cedar plank, very fresh but without much flavor. I don't like overseasoned and oversauced food, but this needed something.

Ditto a fillet of rockfish with crab hash.

Here was a spectacular sirloin strip au poivre ordered medium rare and arriving rare to purple. The steak was coated with so much crushed black pepper it had to be scraped off. (Did I complain earlier about a lack of seasoning?) But the quality of the meat and its dark, winy sauce almost made up for anything.

A potentially wonderful first course of smoked salmon with wild-rice waffles failed because the waffles were almost too tough to cut with a knife.

None of this was dreadful. It's just that what was good was so very, very good, you wished the whole meal lived up to, say, the grilled oysters. The hot, plump bivalves lay on the half shell in a bit of silky butter sauce spangled with chopped chives. Fabulous.

A first course of tender grilled breast of duck with a drizzle of blueberry "ketchup," a few fresh blueberries and a golden, crusty grits cake made me want to stand up and cheer.

A lobster and corn cake with julienned vegetables was pure luxury.

Side dishes and garnishes were admirable, like the crisp frizzled onions that came with the steak and the silky-smooth, garlic-scented mashed potatoes and the fresher-than-fresh haricots verts, broccoli florets and sugar snap peas that accompanied the lamb.

I loved the crab hash with the rockfish, made with fat lumps of snowy crab meat.

Little extras like the crisp crackers with a bit of fish mousse and tapenade that came with our drinks and crusty rolls with sweet butter also made us happy.

Save room for desserts, which range from a homey, decidedly inelegant but very good hot fudge sundae to a very elegant little savarin, a rich yeast cake filled with lemon curd and decorated with raspberries. Oregon Grille also has a good Key lime pie, which tasted as if it was made with fresh lime juice.

Looking back on the evening, I realize we had a fine time in spite of the glitches. (Of course, if it had been my own $200 I was spending I might feel differently.) But my guess is that Bauer and company will work the kinks out, and the Oregon Grille will take its place among the area's best restaurants.

Oregon Grille

Where: 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$45 (beluga caviar); entrees, $18-$29; major credit cards

Call: 410-771-0505

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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