Prime ingredient for success

Restaurant: Oregon Grille offers fine dining with substantial food and prices.

Sunday Gourmet

January 28, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Whatever else you want to say about the Oregon Grille, you have to admit that it's the brainchild of a savvy restaurateur.

Ted Bauer, who also owns the Mount Washington Tavern, realized early on that the kind of upscale restaurant most likely to succeed is a steakhouse. Americans may be getting more sophisticated, more experimental, more global; but what they seem to want when they're on expense account or celebrating an occasion is a large hunk of prime beef. And they're willing to pay upward of $30 for it.

For his fine-dining restaurant, Bauer renovated what had been the Oregon General Store, a 19th-century building at the entrance to Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley. The decor has a hunt club motif, but it's understated -- a discreet horsey print here, a decorative row of bridles there. This is a comfortable, handsome restaurant, with well-spaced sitting areas in various rooms and on several porches. People tend to murmur rather than shout here, even when there's live piano music. Gentlemen are required to wear jackets to dinner.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of a production error in last week's review, an incorrect phone number was given for the Oregon Grille. The correct number is 410-771-0505.

The service, which I remember being a little ragged when the Oregon Grille first opened, couldn't have been better this time around. Our waiter was professional and unobtrusive, and the meal was well paced even though the restaurant was busy.

The Oregon Grille ranks among the area's most expensive restaurants. As such, its food gets judged with a more critical eye than most other places'. While much of our meal was fabulous, there were a couple of disappointments we couldn't overlook.

Strictly speaking, the Oregon Grille isn't a steakhouse; but the emphasis is on beef, even though seafood lovers will find plenty to like here. At its best, the food is equal to any you can find in the Baltimore area. The chef, Mark Henry of Milton Inn fame, starts with superb ingredients, such as the almost fork-tender rack of lamb. The meaty little chops were perfectly cooked -- pink and delicately flavorful -- and the friend who ordered them had to fight the rest of us off. Their fragrant, winey sauce was a wonderful addition. Accompanying broccoli and green beans jardiniere were jewel green and just tender.

Steak au poivre started with what looked like a pound of New York strip: It towered over the plate. Discreetly napped with demi-glace, the rosy rare meat was full of beefy flavor, but its peppery crust was not for the faint of heart.

Tuna, char-grilled with just a tinge of pink to keep it moist as ordered, was fresh enough to stand up to the smoky flavor; the slivery zucchini and a bit of rosy butter sauce that came with it created a very pretty plate.

A special that evening, veal tenderloin with morels, allowed the kitchen a bit of a stretch. Again, it was the meat that carried the day; the creamy mushroom sauce merely gilded the lily.

Unlike the custom of some steakhouses, not everything at the Oregon Grille is a la carte. Some dishes come with a vegetable or potato, but it's more a garnish than a serving. Serious side dishes are extra: a great cloud of garlic-scented potatoes, slender green asparagus spears, wickedly creamy spinach.

With the Brobdingnagian proportions, you don't really need an appetizer; but appetizers are where chef Henry gets to strut his stuff: fat fried oysters on a bed of barely steamed baby spinach edged with coins of spicy andouille sausage and a zingy horseradish sauce; a plump corncake filled with lumps of lobster next to a drift of julienne vegetables and a buttery sauce.

With so much that's fabulous, why doesn't the Oregon Grille get four stars for food?

The devil is in the details.

Take the grilled shrimp cocktail. The three giant shrimp were too salty and had been cooked too long. And they were served on a bed of chopped lettuce for some reason -- odd when with other dishes, every item on the plate was there for a purpose.

The individually served, fat French rolls were heated, but not long enough. They remained soft, not crusty.

A mildly dressed salad with Belgian endive, watercress, hearts of palm, mushrooms and chopped apple was inoffensive, but not as appealing as the ingredients suggested.

The worst example, though, was my dessert. We were happy with a delicate key lime pie, and a chocolate pate swirled with white and dark chocolate was out of this world. Mocha cheesecake was pleasant enough. But my beautiful free-form apple tart arrived badly burnt. The kitchen had sent it out anyway, smothering it with confectioners' sugar, I suppose, so the burnt parts wouldn't be so obvious.

OREGON GRILLE

Food: ***

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$55; main courses, $21-$32

Call: 443-755-0113

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

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