On the second visit, a big improvement

Restaurant: Nautilus Diner initially makes a lukewarm impression, but on a subsequent visit, it rises to the challenge of hungry diners.

Sunday Gourmet

M

March 11, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

More than any restaurant I've been to lately, the new Nautilus Diner in Timonium is an example of the axiom You Have to Know What to Order.

I consider myself a savvy restaurant goer. I know how to interpret a menu and get at the good stuff. In other words, when you're faced with a menu like the Nautilus' -- one that has more triple decker sandwiches than some places have entrees -- you don't go for the surf and turf.

But even I went into sensory overload with a menu this big. The Nautilus offers mammoth breakfasts any time, dozens of sandwiches, salads, burgers, Italian and Greek dishes and endless entrees -- from turkey with dressing and cranberry sauce to broiled lobster tails.

On my first visit, my husband and I stuck to the daily specials. I ordered the spinach and cheese pie, which comes with a salad, and he had the meatloaf with potato and vegetables.

Big mistake. The only thing either meal had going for it was size. Shut your eyes and the meatloaf tasted OK -- like every other meatloaf you've ever had -- but the dark slabs, swimming in a lake of dark gravy, didn't look very appetizing. The potatoes (mashed) and the vegetable (creamed cauliflower) didn't add much to the plate visually. (The creamed cauliflower, though, was the hit of the evening, its light cream sauce perfectly seasoned.)

The spanakopita was just this side of burnt: dark, a bit greasy and limp. Its salad of white iceberg lettuce, white tomatoes and onion rings had a Greek dressing that tasted like no Greek dressing I've ever had -- it was creamy and flavored with mustard. (No, it wasn't the honey mustard. My husband had that.)

A stuffed clam appetizer was actually seasoned breadcrumbs with chopped clams. It had an eye-popping garnish of an orange slice, purple ornamental kale leaves and a confetti of chopped parsley.

As for dessert, a napoleon and a slice of chocolate cake from the pastry case at the front of the dining room might have been fine when they were younger; but they had sat around long enough to be quite soggy.

Sum total of my recommendations from the meal: creamed cauliflower and a decent cup of Manhattan clam chowder.

On the plus side, the staff was exceptionally nice. (I'm every hostess's nightmare because I'm never happy with my original table; ours moved us without a murmur. Our young waitress was attentive and cheerful. The food came quickly.) And the dining room, shiny new and brightly colored with a mural, lots of chrome and booths, is comfortable and clean. Still, I was grumpy about having to go back the next night.

But what a difference a day makes.

This time I instructed my two guests to stick to breakfast or sandwiches. One ordered an enormous omelette filled with extra cheddar and broccoli, fat sage-scented sausages, and addictively good home fries. The other -- who started with a glass of merlot (Nautilus has a full bar) -- had an excellent chocolate milkshake, whipped cream and all, and a fine cheeseburger on a sesame roll. You've got to love that combination. The cheeseburger came with crisp waffle fries and nondescript coleslaw topped with a whole dill pickle.

I was debating over souvlaki or a sandwich when the words "Lump Maryland crab cake, a delicacy of the house" caught my eye. I knew it was going to be a mistake, but it was the only thing so labeled on the encyclopedic menu. How could I pass it up?

But surprisingly, the Nautilus' crab cake was a huge, gloriously free-form mound with big lumps of snowy crab meat, a mere whisper of filler and seasonings that enhanced rather than overwhelmed. The crab cake of your dreams, unearthed in a Timonium diner.

OK, you'll still have to deal with vegetables like frozen peas and carrots, but run, don't walk. The Nautilus can't possibly continue to sell this good a crab cake for $12.45.

NAUTILUS DINER

Food: ** 1/2

Service:***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 2047 York Road, Timonium

Hours: Open 24 hours a day

Prices: Appetizers; $1.85-$8.75; main courses, $8.95-$26.95

Call: 410-561-9236

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

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