Genteel gives way to casual

Restaurant: The Candle Light Inn has updated its menu and its decor, with mixed results.

August 01, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Even the Candle Light Inn, a restaurant that once seemed frozen in a more genteel era, has had to change with the times. As recently as the early '90s, it was still serving stalwarts of Continental cuisine like veal Oscar -- dishes that tend to be caloric, bad for your heart and a bit boring. A deadly combination, no pun intended.

But in recent years, owners Marc and Christian Lombardini have updated both the food and the setting, renovating the house originally built in the mid 1800s. They added a covered deck -- the effect is something like a dining-room-sized gazebo. The surrounding yard and gardens are beautifully landscaped, and ceiling fans keep the air moving even on a hot night. Outside is definitely the place to be. The indoor dining rooms, which are probably warm and cozy in the winter, seem a bit stuffy this time of year.

The problem is that, like practically every other restaurant, the Candle Light Inn hasn't been able to escape casualization. The owners have taken the deck and turned it and the adjoining bar into the Crossroads 144 Pub & Patio. The change is signaled by an enormous Orioles schedule hung by the door. As you can imagine, it isn't as pretty as the azaleas and impatiens along the edges of the deck.

Not that you're forced to order pub grub if you eat outside. The hostess gives you the dinner menu if you choose to sit on the deck, as well as a light-fare menu filled with Buffalo wings, burgers and the like.

The dinner menu is more limited and more interesting than it used to be. Marc Lombardini is the Candle Light Inn's chef as well as an owner, and his credentials include the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

So we weren't surprised that our appetizers were good.

Fried polenta in particular was a knockout. The soft-centered, crisp golden rectangle, dusted with Parmesan, was surrounded with grilled vegetables and a pool of tomato coulis. A classic shrimp bisque, delicately creamy, was enlivened by bits of tender-crisp asparagus. Even the shrimp cocktail had been updated, with enormous shrimp perfectly steamed, arranged artistically on a few fresh greens with their cocktail sauce.

The fish of the day was the best of our main courses. A fat, fresh salmon fillet came with what our waitress said would be "cabbage, asparagus and apple-bacon dressing." That last turned out to be dressing as in salad dressing, discreetly applied to the cabbage. The faintly sweet-sour flavor was a pleasant counterpoint to the rich, moist fish. And the bright-green asparagus spears, just tender-crisp, added lively contrast.

Not every dish was as successful. A signature dish, veal Franco, paired veal scaloppine with portobello mushrooms and topped them with tomatoes and provolone cheese. It was a less heavy and more successful combination than it sounds, but the veal arrived overcooked to the point of dryness.

A fist-sized fillet of pork was handsome, but it needed a bit more fruit than the four slim slices of caramelized peaches that topped it. And they would have been better if they hadn't been caramelized quite so close to burnt. Both the pork and the veal dish came with a carrot-green bean combination that was respectable enough but not very interesting.

More attention could be paid to details. With all the good bread out there, why serve soft rolls browned a bit too long? And I personally don't think a perfectly decent green salad should contain large candied walnut halves, but I guess that's a matter of taste.

Desserts come from Patisserie Poupon, our waitress told us, and you can't do better than that. But you can make sure they're fresh, and my strawberry napoleon was soggy.

As for the service, it started off on a bad foot when we asked our hostess for a different table from the one she gave us, near a party of smokers. (This was on the patio.)

"No," she said. "That's a different waitress."

At a restaurant where I'm about to spend around $50 a person, I want the hostess to accommodate me, not the waitresses. On my own, I would have made a fuss; working I tend to be quieter.

When the smoking got worse, we asked our waitress if we could move, and she was very nice about it. She was even allowed to continue serving us at the new table. But good as she was, service was slow; there simply weren't enough people to go around.

CANDLE LIGHT INN

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 1835 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Hours: Open nightly for dinner, Monday through Saturday for lunch

Prices: Entrees $17.25-$25. Major credit cards accepted

Call: 410-788-6076

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

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