Tasting the states of the nation

Sunday Gourmet

October 14, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Restaurant: Brick Ridge offers dishes with roots in many different parts of the country, all reasonably priced and some with real panache.

In the restaurant business, "regional American cuisine" has come to mean just about anything the chef wants to put on your plate; but Todd Bricken uses the phrase literally. His Mount Airy restaurant, Brick Ridge, gives the state of origin of each dish on the regular menu.

For those who are in the mood to celebrate America, he has Indiana meatloaf and Mississippi catfish. The specials menu, which changes weekly, features the food of a particular state, so that -- for instance -- if it's Florida week, you can order alligator, conch chowder or grouper as well as the regular menu's Maryland fried chicken and Texas toast. You even get a little history lesson about the state of the week.

The downside of this concept, of course, is that not all states' cuisines are created equal. Without wanting to insult anyone's state of origin, I'd be more likely to go when it was California week than, say, South Dakota week. But my guess is that Bricken and the restaurant's chef are adept at fudging so they always come up with some pretty good specials.

Brick Ridge's chef is Jody Francisco, who previously ran the kitchen of Henninger's Tavern in Fells Point. He and Bricken offer customers a pleasant, moderately priced menu that includes a few dishes that have real panache.

The setting is the former Quail Ridge Inn, once a 19th-century schoolhouse. Bricken exposed some of the low-ceilinged schoolhouse's brick walls, painted other walls light, fresh colors, and added handsome new hardwood floors. Large potted plants decorated with white fairy lights soften the look of the two small dining rooms. The service is warm, friendly and down-home.

The food manages to be just a little more sophisticated than the decor and service suggest; and when you compare its prices to big-city prices, dinner here is a bargain. Entrees are kept to under $20, and they include an elegant little salad, a starch and fresh vegetables. Just about everything is made on the premises, from the salad dressings to the desserts.

Pork tenderloin from North Carolina has overtones of brown sugar, pepper and bourbon; the juicy slices are nicely balanced by rice and a colorful melange of fresh vegetables. Salads shine with interesting greens, the last of summer's tomatoes, a bit of grated carrot, and long, elegant slivers of cucumber. Those homemade dressings add a sharply fresh note.

Golden-crusted Maryland fried chicken comes with mashed potatoes instead of rice and a nicely done brown sauce that's a little too chi-chi to be classic fried chicken gravy. A Delmonico steak sports a horseradish and herb crust from a New York recipe. I have to admit I scraped most of the crust off; it dominated the steak and the fine bordelaise sauce.

The state of the week this night is New Hampshire. Its Rye Harbor Sole wouldn't win me over to the Granite State's cuisine. The gray sole supposedly comes with a roasted squash butter sauce, but both fish and sauce taste pretty bland.

Oyster corn fritters from the same menu, though, have loads of character. The oysters are small in their crisp casings, but tender and sweet. Appetizers from the regular menu tend to be more generic, and some of them remind me of the sort of food you get at Henninger's (which is no surprise, and not a bad thing).

The grilled French bread in this version of Texas toast is draped with sauteed red peppers and onions, and edged with rounds of fresh mozzarella and plum tomatoes. Quesadillas are appropriately hot and soft and oozy with melted cheeses; juicy tomatoes add an edge of freshness. Wickedly good sausage puffs are the star of the show with their puff pastry crusts and tangy creole mustard sauce.

Desserts have the comfortable hominess of the rest of the menu. Certain ones have a regional feel to them -- namely a moist New England apple cake with a warm caramel sauce and a berry-cherry compote that feels regional although I couldn't tell you what region. But if you really want to celebrate our culture, you should have the 100 percent all-American hot, fudgy brownie loaded down with vanilla ice cream.

BRICK RIDGE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 6212 Ridge Road, Mount Airy

Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$7.50; main courses, $10.25-$19

Call: 301-829-8191

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

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