Both casual and elegant dishes in charming setting

March 19, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It isn't hard to imagine horses clopping along the hilly streets of historic Ellicott City. What is hard to imagine is that they were ever kept in what is now the handsome Mill Towne Tavern.

This former stable has been transformed into an inviting restaurant with warm, clubby dining rooms on two levels. Before the restaurant opened last June, owner Keith Curtiss and landlord Pete Ruff renovated the sprawling condemned building on Old Columbia Pike and won some awards in the process.

It's easy to see why. Inside, there's no sense of the building's rustic past, except for the rough granite walls, where folk-art paintings are hung in heavy gilt frames. There was no stone in the lower dining room where we were seated, but the room was just as charming, with its ceiling painted in a muted green gloss and windows draped in soft brown velvet. The setting is upscale yet casual, which is exactly the tone that the menu sets.

Light fare is given as much attention as entrees. There are almost 20 sandwich choices on the dinner menu, from perennial favorites like crab cakes and burgers to the more inventive fillet bearnaise and stuffed portobello mushroom. All are under $9.

Our waiter, who grew a little less attentive as the night wore on, started out with a flurry of helpful suggestions. One of his recommendations was the grilled steak sandwich. Alongside a tumble of crispy coated steak fries, the small New York strip was tender, although a bit overcooked. Served whole, it barely fit on its kaiser roll, underneath a pad of lettuce and tomato.

The option of a casual, inexpensive meal is perfect for people who come to this town to shop the antiques stores rather than to spend big bucks on dinner. However, most people around us seemed to be ordering more elegant dishes, like the rockfish special topped with crab meat that we tried. Surrounded by bright green snow peas and soft roasted potatoes, the golden, pan-seared fish was cooked perfectly, flaking into luscious white morsels. Lumps of crab and a light butter sauce added just the right amount of richness.

We weren't as pleased with the shrimp and andouille fra diavolo, which we ordered with fettuccine instead of linguine. The sauce was too loose and chunky, tasting simply like canned tomatoes. The only boost of flavor came from slices of tangy, spicy Cajun sausage.

Our appetizers were uneven, too. The quesadilla was satisfying -- a cheesy version filled with chopped tomato, Monterey jack and Cheddar -- but tender, greaseless fried calamari and Maryland crab soup both could have used a bit more zip. Though we thought the flavor was wonderful, the artichoke and crab dip was as thin as bisque, dripping off our French bread crostini.

We finished on a sweet note, though, with dense chocolate bourbon cake, moist peanut butter layer cake and chocolate-covered macadamia nut torte on a buttery crumb crust. In the race for decadence, the torte was the winner by more than a nose.

Mill Towne Tavern

3733 Old Columbia Pike

410-480-0894

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major credit cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.25-$7.25; entrees, $5.95-$18.95

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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