MOST PEOPLE don't go to pubs for dessert. In fact, most pubs (and a disappointing number of restaurants) don't even bother to make the desserts they serve. Somehow, somebody decided that it's more efficient or better to contract the sweets to an outside vendor.
At G. L. Shacks, a pub in Catonsville, Dave Martin tries to be the exception. The chef makes some of the desserts himself. If the brownie cheesecake is a true indication of his ability, then Shacks no longer needs to consider using anyone else. One slice of the moist, dense stuff laced with gooey brownie crumbs is reason enough to brave the Beltway.
It was one of the best and largest pieces of cheesecake I've ever had.
The only other dessert offered the night we went was equally large; the bowl of steaming, crunchy blueberry cobbler could have fed three easily.
Martin became the full-time chef at Shacks about three months ago, said Rick Shackelford, who owns the restaurant and its counterpart in Ellicott City with Greg Tolker and Lee Stumpf.
With the exception of Martin's desserts and nightly specials, the owners haven't changed the menu much. They've stuck with the traditional American fare, along with a handful of Tex-Mex and pasta dishes.
Descriptions on the menu, however, sound more ambitious than one would expect to find in a small dining room that's attached to a bar.
For the most part, the food lives up to the words. The pasta primavera bordered on exceptional; the white-wine butter sauce with bite-sized chunks of squash, zucchini and scallions was a nice change of pace from the usual tomato-based sauce. Salmon Dillano's creamy dill sauce had lots of flavor. Side salads - which all too often are nothing more than bony iceberg lettuce swamped in dressing - were loaded with fresh sprouts and juicy tomatoes.
Other dishes didn't hold up. Shrimp Miguel, an appetizer of shrimp simmered in sherry cream sauce with basil and mushrooms and served in a bread bowl, looked terrific. But we couldn't taste the basil or the sherry and the dish needed salt. The lightly seasoned chicken salad turned out to be hardly seasoned.
Service is attentive without being obtrusive. The decor is straightforward, yet there's been some attempt to soften the atmosphere by using low lights and small vases of white flowers on the tiled tables.
But the musician who thought he could cover everyone from Bob Seger to Brian Setzer reminded us of how close the dining room was to the bar. So did the smoke. Even though we didn't notice the smell while we were eating in the nonsmoking area, our clothes reeked of cigarettes long after we'd left.
Shacks has the potential to succeed as a restaurant as well as a pub. The key to that success will be defining boundaries that make the dining room seem less like an afterthought.
G. L. Shacks
583 Frederick Road, Catonsville
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week
Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $7.95; entrees $5.95 to $15.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2