Starry Nights glitters in a casual way

June 10, 1999|By KATHRYN HIGHAM | KATHRYN HIGHAM,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You might need some celestial navigation to guide you to a Howard County restaurant called Starry Nights.

Hidden in the West Friendship Shopping Center, this small, bistro-like restaurant is trying to succeed where its predecessor, Country Road, failed. Even owner John Mitsos admits the location, which is not visible from the road, is "quirky."

Mitsos bought Country Road last December, kept the bar-food fare the same for a few months and introduced a new name and menu in March. His concept is upscale food in a relaxed setting, or as his ads tout, "casual fine dining."

The description is apt. White tablecloths and fresh flowers aside, there is nothing formal about the dining room. Its decor includes aqua booths and Tiffany-style hanging lamps. You'd be at home in jeans here eating such polished dishes as crispy shrimp with spicy remoulade or filet of beef with Madagascar sauce.

Those three colossal shrimp arrived with their tails in the air and sitting on their backs in a pool of fiery remoulade, a kind of pink tartar sauce with considerable zip. The crispiness of this appetizer came from a wrapping of shredded Greek pastry.

The filet mignon was cooked just as we ordered it and had wonderful flavor and texture -- tender but not too soft. Its mushroom gravy, infused with the concentrated flavor of green peppercorns, might be a bit strong for some, but we liked it. The meat was served, as were our other entrees, with crisp-steamed broccoli and wonderfully smooth mashed potatoes that elicited a round of "aaahhs" from our table.

We had the same reaction after a bite of the crab cake, which was truly jumbo lump. It had the sweetness of superior crab and a gorgeous smoky edge from its time in the broiler.

The chef, John Cooper, is from Germany, and his influence on the menu is apparent, most notably in the terrific Hungarian goulash we tried. It was seasoned with caraway seeds and so much paprika and other spices that the soup turned a deep ruddy brown. With crusty bread and herb butter, it was almost a meal.

Another European-style starter was the smoked salmon with luscious whipped dill cream. A small potato pancake served as an edible platter for the cream. The pancake was surrounded by folds of glistening salmon, capers and chopped red onion.

Perhaps most German of all, the pork chop with spiced sauerkraut was not quite as successful as the others, mainly because the meat was broiled until dry.

There were some other minor problems. The raspberry vinaigrette on our salad of mixed bitter greens, with chunks of fresh pear, walnuts and crumbled blue cheese, was a tad too tart. The penne noodles, covered in a lovely sauce of oven-roasted tomatoes and mussels out of their shells, were too soft. More exasperating, our young waiter was a bit too inexperienced. At one point, he asked to remove plates while we were all still busy eating, forks raised, mouths open.

We were impressed that this small restaurant makes the desserts it serves. A good choice was the cannoli cake, with a graham cracker crust filled with whipped ricotta cream flavored with almonds. But a simple, dry chocolate cake with raspberry filling hardly seemed worth its nearly $6 price tag.

Starry Nights

12800 Frederick Road, West Friendship

410-442-2140

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; for dinner on Sunday

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$7.95; entrees, $12.95-$21.95

Food: ** *

Service: **

Atmosphere: * *1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 06/10/99

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