Antique setting, contemporary cuisine Restaurant: Baldwin's Station serves mostly spectacular food in a renovated train station in Sykesville.

August 23, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Suddenly, everyone is talking about a restaurant in Sykesville called Baldwin's Station. Baltimoreans who normally find it too .. much trouble to go down to the Inner Harbor to eat are driving 45 minutes to a renovated train station where they indulge in wild mushroom ratatouille and scallops with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes.

The renovation of the antique building is getting glowing reviews, although it actually happened almost a decade ago under different owners. But the new-as-of-last-August owners, Stewart Dearie and Austin Isemann, can take the credit for the contemporary American cuisine. Dearie, a Sykesville resident, managed the classy Conservatory in Baltimore's Peabody Hotel before it closed, and then Antrim 1844 in Taneytown, a well-known destination restaurant. Isemann is an owner of the Quail Ridge Inn in Mount Airy.

If truth be told, a train station doesn't really make a great restaurant space. The arrangement of rooms is awkward in some respects; the ladies', for instance, opens right out into one of the two dining rooms. If you sit over the air-conditioning duct, as one of my guests did, you either freeze to death or you put your purse over it and the whole room suffers.

The train tracks and their gravel bed are next to the deck seating; trains do come by from time to time. (I guess if you love railroads, this could be a plus.)

Our dining room's cozy country decor was sweet, with stencils, red-and-white nosegays on each table and such; but it was at odds with the sophistication of the food. You'd expect country-fried chicken if you didn't know any better. What you get is chicken marinated in sour cream, dredged in cornmeal, fried and served with pistachio aioli and garlic mashed potatoes.

Some of the food here is spectacular, like a modest-sounding portobello mushroom bisque, creamy smooth and full of woodsy flavor. I loved a fat, moist slab of salmon in a hauntingly delicate beurre blanc, and I couldn't stop eating the accompanying creamy, rich risotto laced with jewel-green bites of asparagus. More asparagus came on the side.

A thick, perfectly cooked pork chop with snowy-white flesh was set off by a chutney-like sauce of dried cherries and port. Alongside were creamy mashed potatoes with a hint of garlic.

The special appetizer that night was wickedly, gloriously rich: Pillows of phyllo dough stuffed with crab meat and deep-fried, then laid on a pool of herb-scented cream sauce.

Still, there were glitches. Oysters baked with slivered pancetta, cream and sambuca liqueur were a bit too sweet for my taste. A grilled portobello Napoleon entree wasn't stacked as promised; the grilled vegetables were arranged overlapping on the plate. Not a major problem, except there were no portobellos with the red peppers, sweet potatoes and onions. And hummus had been substituted for guacamole.

Baldwin's version of that glorious caramelized apple dessert tarte Tatin had a soggy crust and not very good apples. But all our other desserts were fabulous: a sensational creme brulee, mango sorbet, fresh strawberries and blueberries.

We would love to have tried Baldwin's chocolate souffle, but our waiter hadn't told us about it and we didn't feel like waiting another 20 minutes. We had already waited endlessly - first for our drinks, then for our entrees.

True, the staff had their hands full. It was a Wednesday night; and on Wednesday nights, one of the dining rooms is used for live folk music, a popular and usually well- attended attraction.

! Pub date: 8/23/98

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