Deciding what to order is difficult when a restaurant's menu is as interesting as the one at the Tavern at Centre Park in Columbia. It took awhile just to wade through the nearly two dozen appetizers.
So, it was a good thing executive chef Henry Pertman made his way to our table before we ordered. Pertman, dressed in a chef's jacket and flashy loose pants, pointed out some Tavern specialties - dishes that are popular with customers (the crab dip and Florentine mixed grill) - and his own favorites (the smoked fish and duck). It was a classy way to start our meal.
J.P.B. Restaurant Enterprises opened the Tavern in April on the first level of an office building opposite the Columbia Palace 9 Theatres. Enclosed in smoked glass, the expansive space has a dark, contemporary feel, with an open display kitchen, exposed ceiling painted black, and cushy booths upholstered with a splash of color.
If the decor has an up-to-date feel, so does the menu, which gets its inspiration from lots of different places - the Pacific Rim, California, Italy and the Southwest. Interesting ingredients, like the oblong caperberries on our diced vegetable and goat cheese salad, and the Southwestern spices in the crab cake, give dishes a different twist.
Golden edged, with the faintest flavor of cumin, this phenomenal dTC crab cake practically fell apart into big, sweet lumps. You can order it as a sandwich on a Portuguese roll with fajita fries and cole slaw, or as a platter, with mashed potatoes and diced vine-ripe tomatoes drizzled with honeyed balsamic vinaigrette.
Duck is served two ways at the Tavern: smoked, encrusted with herbs and baked, or the way we tried it, roasted simply with Oriental seasonings. A thin oyster-garlic sauce had been used to baste the half-duck, making it aromatic and moist. There was no gamy flavor and no grease, which is no small accomplishment when it comes to duck. Sweet angel hair noodles and crisp sugar snap peas made good foils.
The Florentine mixed grill that's so popular with Tavern customers pairs chunks of tender steak with jumbo shrimp in a cream sauce with wilted spinach. It's rich, but it works. The cream sauce brings the other ingredients together harmoniously without attempting to overpower them.
Sauces stood out among our appetizers, too. Honey-barbecue-mustard sauce and creamy horseradish-dill remoulade had been swirled into a starburst pattern of red and white on the smoked fish platter, which featured chunks of moist, peppered salmon and bluefish and slices of cured salmon with capers and chopped red onion.
Subtle is the way we'd describe the wild mushroom-wine sauce served with our grilled portobello. Subtle, buttery and fine. The thick crab and artichoke dip was subtle as well, made with big lumps of crab, cream cheese and a smattering of capers. If artichokes were in the mix, we couldn't tell.
We had only a few minor problems, mainly with our side dishes: garlic mashed potatoes that needed more garlic; and squash slices so heavily seasoned with thyme, they tasted dirty. On the crab cake platter, the garlic mashed potatoes had been mixed with big yellow kernels of corn. Eastern Shore white corn at its summer peak would have lent more sweetness, we thought.
Our waiter, a model of efficiency and helpfulness all night, suggested the chocolate fantasy cake for dessert. We tried it but found it didn't have the intensity of flavor we expected. It, like the moist chocolate-rum-pear layer cake, cappuccino mousse and the rest of the desserts at the Tavern, was not made in-house.
The Tavern at Centre Park
8808 Centre Park Drive, Columbia
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; brunch on Sundays
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$11.95; entrees, $6.95-$19.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 9/17/98