By now, just about every Baltimorean must know that Towne Hall is not the Cal Ripken equivalent of Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm restaurant. The Orioles All-Star player is a part-owner of the new Greenspring Station eating place, but you won't find any baseball memorabilia there or Cal's Famous Shrimp Imperial on the menu.
What I didn't realize, with all the hoopla about the Ripken connection, is that Towne Hall is an upscale chain in the making. More precisely, it's a concept the owners hope to expand to other locations. That's why, our waiter told us, the name isn't more locale-specific. The same could be said of the menu. You might expect a restaurant connected with a hometown guy like Cal -- even if it's a behind-the-scenes connection -- to be rooted in Baltimore, with a decor that says Maryland (if not Orioles baseball) and a menu filled with local specialties.
Not so. Even the crab cake is a "Delmarva Crab Cake" rather than a Maryland crab cake.
I mention this as an interesting fact, not a criticism. The worst thing about Towne Hall has nothing to do with its being a potential chain restaurant. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this place is noisy -- noisier than any new restaurant I've ever complained about before. Even our waitress said it was getting to her. The three dining rooms are splendidly outfitted with polished wood, glass, stylish furnishings and contemporary appointments. Now they need something to absorb sound.
As long as I'm complaining, I should mention that the abbreviated wine list is a joke, given the sophistication of the food. And you have to ask if you want bread and butter.
But on to what's good. Namely, the food. It's supposedly casual comfort food, with only one entree (the rib eye steak) over $20. I say supposedly because some of it is really a cut above comfort food, most notably the specials. A vegetable Napoleon was a work of art on the plate. Stacked slices of squash, peppers and eggplant with a bit of melted mozzarella were decorated with a frizzle of parsley and delicate lines of an Asian-inspired sauce. A cold seafood platter was perfect for a summer dinner, with poached salmon, shrimp, crabmeat, and a suave dill sauce. (Unfortunately, the green salad that came on the plate was dressing-less.)
Gazpacho, not overseasoned so the flavors of the tomatoes and other vegetables came through, was elevated to new culinary heights with a spoonful of crab meat and an avocado aioli.
Highlights of the regular menu include some high-end bar food. A tender chicken quesadilla with salsa, chipolte sour cream and guacamole soared. Crabmeat, spinach and artichoke gratin with crisp pita gets my vote as the best version of the usually goopy dip I've had.
Not everything was perfect. Grouper had to be sent back because it was undercooked, but after it returned I couldn't get enough of it. It came with a colorful dice of lobster, crab and fresh tomatoes and a crisp-edged risotto cake. A seafood Cobb salad had too much going on, with corn, green beans, artichokes and shrimp added to the usual mix of greens, chopped tomato, crab, avocado, egg and bacon.
Some food really was comfort food, like a well-marbled, juicy rib eye steak with green peppercorns, a swirl of mashed potatoes and delicate strings of fried onion.
Save room for a creamy Key lime pie, fresh peach cobbler or a classic creme brulee. Remarkably, an ice cream cake made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate Oreo crumbs was as close as Towne Hall comes to a chocolate dessert. But I have to admit it was nice not to have to face another death-by-flourless-chocolate-fudge-cake creation. You might as well inject the chocolate directly into your veins.
The only dessert disappointment came when our waitress told us that the fresh strawberry and blueberry shortcake was being made with ice cream instead of cake that evening. Somehow that's not my definition of shortcake.
Crabmeat, spinach and artichoke gratin with crisp pita gets my vote as the best version of the usually goopy dip I've had.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 2360 West Joppa Road, Lutherville
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$9.95; main courses, $8.95-$21.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *