Every day is a special occasion at Linwood's

Restaurant: Even the comfort food excels at this elegant place, which hasn't forgotten how to be a good neighbor.

Sunday Gourmet

March 17, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Think of Linwood's as a neighborhood restaurant for the wealthy.

The rest of us go to handsome restaurants like this to celebrate special occasions. We order the foie gras or the grilled tenderloin or the steamed lobster. OK, we don't order the lobster, which costs $65, but you know what I mean.

Linwood's, however, doesn't want to be just a special occasion restaurant. On its menu is a cheeseburger with shoestring potatoes, a steak sandwich, three dinner salads and three pastas, all priced under $20. You could stop in for a bite after work, in other words, and not totally deconstruct your budget. The problem is that in this refined setting it's hard to order just a cheeseburger.

The dining room, with its dark wood and swooping curves, is formal but not staid. An exhibition kitchen adds visual interest. Tables are handsomely and conservatively set with white linens, sparkling glassware and heavy silver. The overall effect is warm, comfortable and stylish.

Fabric throughout the room creates a pleasant hush, with murmuring voices and the clink of silverware about as loud as it gets. (The exception was a table of noisy drunks celebrating a birthday near us.) To help keep the noise level down, the menu requests no cell phone usage in the dining room.

As is usual at neighborhood places, comfort food is at the core of Linwood's menu -- at least the winter menu. An enormous chunk of tenderloin, grilled rosy rare, was showcased by silky mashed potatoes, fat asparagus spears and a drift of wild mushrooms. Bourbon sauce, in a small pool beneath the steak, added an incongruous note of sweetness but did little to detract from the superlative beef.

The kitchen has a penchant for sweet sauces, which sometimes work and sometimes don't but are usually unexpected. Tuna, that meatiest of fishes, stood up well to the discreet application of barbecue sauce, especially when paired with fat, crisply fried oysters. But the very fresh trout fillets draped over perfectly cooked fresh brussels sprouts suffered from their sweetened cream sauce.

Perhaps the best of our entrees was the venison. Rare slices were fanned out on a peppery, mahogany sauce. They had an earthy appeal accented with a few blueberries and a piquant bit of goat cheese. A soothing, creamy risotto added counterpoint.

Ordering first courses at Linwood's is a necessity. They are simply too good to pass up. A butter-soft bit of foie gras was artfully combined with Asian pear, blue cheese and crisply fried shreds of onion, a fabulous combination of textures and contrasting flavors.

Shrimp, intriguingly spiced Moroccan-style, were arranged jauntily on lump crab salad in a martini glass. A cylinder of raw tuna and ripe chunks of avocado had a drizzle of sour-sweet ponzu sauce, a round marble of wasabi on the side, and a crisp waffle fry perched on top for oomph.

The only starter I had reservations about was a warm salad of haricots verts, greens, goat cheese and slivered ham. It would have been just about perfect except for an oily surfeit of vinaigrette.

Desserts, like most of the rest of our meal, shone. The kitchen offers something light: mango sorbet with a scattering of fresh fruit, raspberry sauce and a crisp tuile cookie.

It offers several choices that are pure comfort. A grown-up's ice cream sandwich featured thin layers of brownie, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and custard and raspberry sauces. Linwood's version of bread pudding -- soft-centered, warm and chocolate -- elevated this homey dish to new heights. A free-form individual apple tart sparkled under a cloud of whipped cream.

The most spectacular dessert, however, was a creamy orange cheesecake with a fresh citrus flavor and a luscious chocolate base.

As at other neighborhood restaurants, Linwood's is often filled with regulars who know each other and the staff. (And who know, for instance, that you can order crab cakes even when they aren't on the menu.) Luckily, the staff -- which manages an impressive balance of friendly warmth and excellent service -- doesn't discriminate, even if you aren't a regular. Give Linwood's credit. That's something restaurants often have trouble doing.

Food: ***

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner every day

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$14; main courses, $16-$33

Call: 410-356-3030

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

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