The hottest trend in restaurants is something called "upscale casual," a strange phrase when you think about it -- hard to define and harder to accomplish. It's an appeal to all those paradoxical feelings Americans have about eating out. We want a laid-back place where we don't have to dress up, a place where we can stop by after work and not spend big bucks. But we're also more sophisticated about food and more health-conscious than we used to be, so we want interesting, fresh food.
Rothwells Grille is one of the places that, for the most part, manages this balancing act.
The dining rooms are pleasantly unmemorable, with comfortable booths and soothing lighting. The bar is loud, but you can ask to be seated farther away than we were. Service is unobtrusive. Rothwells is the kind of place where you might expect to get a burger or a crab cake -- and you can -- but there are also dishes like potato-wrapped grouper with leek and artichokes, and lamb loin with mashed sweet potatoes. That's because the chef and co-owner is Mark Hofmann, whose pedigree is impressive. He left a job as executive chef at Due to open his own place, was at the Pavilion at the Walters for a time, and worked as sous-chef at the Polo Grill and at Linwood's.
His partner, Phil Forrester, owned the Hacienda for 12 years; but nothing on Rothwells' menu seems influenced by his background, unless you count a chicken quesadilla among the light fare.
The menu changes seasonally, although at the end of December the fall menu was still in force. From it we chose fat oysters dipped in cornmeal and fried to a crisp gold. Two sauces came with them, spicy tartar and cocktail, all very prettily arranged.
Large fried shrimp in a crunchy coconut crust were equally fine, with a fresh-tasting pineapple chutney and a subtle Thai-influenced glaze.
This was a busy evening at Rothwells, with just about every table taken, so maybe that's why there were a few missteps. A classic black bean soup sported grated Cheddar and sour cream jazzed up with jalapeno peppers, but not a smidgen of salt. One of the two specials of the evening, a fat, juicy-rare rib-eye steak with portobello mushrooms and a dark Madeira wine sauce, tasted as if a bottle of Worcestershire sauce had been poured over it as well.
But you couldn't call it a slip that the kitchen used a sweet tart shell to hold the mushroom, brandy, Swiss and Madeira filling of the wild mushroom tart. That must have been deliberate, and it didn't work.
And Rothwells' signature crab cakes weren't worth the $22 price tag. They did contain lump crab meat, but had enough filler to taste mushy.
The best of our entrees were the least expensive. A boneless fried chicken breast, juicy and crisp-crusted, was paired with Smithfield ham and sauced discreetly. It was splendid. Triangles of corn bread completed the pretty plate.
Golden fried catfish fillets, another special of the evening, were firm and delicately flavored. Chopped avocado, tomato and just a suggestion of mustard sparked their velvety beurre blanc.
Unlike many other restaurants, Rothwells' kitchen pays attention to side dishes. The entrees were prettily accompanied by little strips of carrot mixed with baby green beans. Our other vegetables were a la carte. The best of them was the fresh sauteed baby spinach leaves, jade-green and just cooked through. We also shared a homey order of garlicky mashed potatoes and the elegant house salad with Dijon vinaigrette.
Attention is paid to dessert here -- just not quite enough. You'd need a chisel to attack the delicious ice cream cake successfully; it should have been left out to thaw a bit. The free-form apple tart didn't have much flavor, but it did come with good vanilla ice cream and creme anglaise. The creme brulee was icy-cold all the way through. (I liked the yummy chunk of chocolate at its center, but the friend who ordered it didn't.)
Best of all our desserts was a peach shortcake, made with a real shortcake biscuit, what seemed to be frozen, not canned, peach slices and a hot, buttery sauce. The vanilla ice cream alongside didn't hurt either.
WHERE: 106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium
HOURS: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner.
PRICES: Appetizers: $4.95-$8.95, main courses: $15-$25.