The kitchen hasn't caught up to the crowds

Restaurant: Bluestone is exuberantly popular, and its food looks good -- but the taste too often falls short.

Sunday Gourmet

November 11, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Bluestone rises majestically from its parking lot -- it will seem as if the restaurant appeared there almost mysteriously if you haven't driven by in a while. The brand-new brick and glass building, all 10,000 square feet of it, isn't obviously an eating place. You have to walk inside into the rollicking central bar with a dining room on each side to realize that this is Timonium's hottest new dining spot.

The sheer exuberance of the place is infectious, with its crowds and its decor of warm earth tones, exposed brick, cathedral ceilings and exposed pipes. Clever one-table dining alcoves give a measure of privacy for parties of six or more. But the two main dining rooms are a bit stark -- perhaps because the tables are bare and the expanse of windows looks out onto the parking lot. Still, everyone seems to be having fun. Bluestone is a place for adults, unlike the numerous chains in the area that cater to families with kids (although adults aren't going to be happy with the fact that Bluestone doesn't take reservations).

It's hard to get a read on the food here. The menu is difficult to categorize, although the kitchen understands that appearance as well as taste is important, so all the food looks upscale and interesting even when it isn't. This is the kind of menu a focus group might come up with -- a little of this, a little of that -- and surprisingly limited for a place this ambitious. I like the fact that the kitchen realizes it can't be everything to every person. But you'd better do everything well if you're going to offer so few dishes.

The best of the appetizers is the crab bake, which stands out with fine ingredients and simple flavors: large lumps of crab, chopped red and green peppers, and a mayonnaisey sauce. The bad news is that where the price should be is the word "mkt." This evening, the market price is $12, so ask first.

Thai calamari comes in a close second to the crab. The tender, golden-crusted rings, accented with sesame oil, have a vinegary-sweet dipping sauce, the kind that dresses Thai cucumber salad.

An antipasto plate is pretty but ultimately disappointing, with a whole roasted garlic, grilled onions and garlic crostini the stars of the show. If you don't want that much garlic, you're out of luck. The roasted red pepper, two wedges of tomato and peppered goat cheese almost seem like an afterthought.

A cup of onion soup is the one exception to the pretty food rule here: It's a thick brown sludge, homey and flavorful but with no cheese or crouton to break the monotony.

Entrees are as handsome and uncategorizable as the appetizers. If you don't want one of several substantial sandwiches -- excellent choices for an inexpensive supper after work -- dinner entrees range from a meatloaf special to Bluestone's signature Churasco tenderloin.

The two slices of tenderloin, ordered medium-rare, come gray on the outside and raw inside. Even the fine spicy herb sauce, carefully cooked fresh vegetables, and mashed potatoes can't save it.

Salmon with spinach and artichoke hearts wrapped in phyllo is delicately flavored with a mild cream sauce sparked with dill -- I liked it; my guest thought it was bland.

Thin strips of buffalo flank steak marinated in beer are dry, but the coffee barbecue sauce explodes with flavor. Bluestone's sauces, as well as fresh, colorful vegetables, are the high point of our dinners.

Bluestone is out of one special this evening, sole piccata, although it's still early. A second choice, chicken roulade, is stuffed with artichoke hearts, spinach, ham and cheese. A red bell pepper sauce swirls around its base. Like most of our dinner, the chicken is pleasant enough. It isn't as heavy as it sounds, but it's not inspired either.

For some reason, desserts are a notch better than the rest of the food. A yellow cake smothered with coconut icing is as yummy and comforting as Mom used to make. A peanut butter and chocolate mousse bombe will remind you of a certain candy bar, only much creamier, and a chocolate mousse cake and cheesecake are classics of their kind.

Bluestone is a restaurant Timonium needs. But right now it has the new restaurant blues -- trying hard to please, with mixed results, as it gets slammed night after night. The kitchen should settle down once it learns to handle the crowds.

Still, some fixes are easy and could be made immediately. I suggest starting with the bread, a rubbery egg bread that's hardly worthy of its butter.

Bluestone is a restaurant Timonium needs. But right now it has the new restaurant blues -- trying hard to please, with mixed results.

BLUESTONE

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 11 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$12; main courses, $12-$25

Call: 410-561-1100

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

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