Cerando goes for seasonal and local

April 18, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SO WHAT'S a chef trained at Hyde Park's ultra-prestigious Culinary Institute of America doing in a strip mall off Route 40? Cooking some of the best food around, luckily for us.

Jerry Cerand, a CIA grad who once worked for Washington's late, great McPherson Grill, has turned a corner of Ellicott City's Lotte Plaza into a sublime respite for both palate and eye. He and his fellow chef, Eric Sollohub, prepare (and often personally deliver to the table) innovative fusion food at Cerando's Kitchen and Bistro.

The 50-seat bistro has a warm, Mediterranean feel, with faux-finished walls and floor. Cerand himself made the tables and spiffed up some Elks Lodge-esque black metal chairs beautifully with dabs of gold paint.

While the bistro menu varies weekly to reflect what's in season, diners can expect to find at least one dish in each of four categories: meat, fish, poultry and vegetarian. And, if the week we went represents Cerando's status quo, diners can expect almost every item to be delicious.

The best of our bunch was an intriguing vegetable curry: carrots, chickpeas, fennel and jasmine rice tied together with a coconut-milk-based curry sauce. The golden sauce had just enough kick to appeal to fans of spicy stuff but didn't overpower those who prefer something milder.

On the carnivorous side, Cerando's handled a steak well, cooking the meat exactly as ordered (medium-rare) on a large stove in the open kitchen. The manageable cut of New York strip slathered in smoky, red barbecue sauce lay artfully across a rectangular bed of garlic mashed potatoes (not overly garlicky).

Cerand says he tries to get his produce whenever possible from Howard, Carroll and Charles counties. Although we couldn't tell a local grape tomato from one grown in California, we could tell that the juicy ones in our appetizers were fresh.

One appetizer - Cerando's house salad - added some pine nuts for variety. The other, a salad of julienne asparagus, fennel and sauteed prosciutto, was disappointing; the cooking process drained the saltiness from the meat, rendering what was left chewy and tasteless.

Sweets could not have been better. The pairing of a lip-puckering lemon bar with a dab of sweet, homemade raspberry sauce was brilliant. And Cerando's signature dessert, "black velvet," was an event alone: a round layer of flourless chocolate cake beneath light, almost bittersweet chocolate mousse covered with crackling, glossy chocolate ganache.

We could not leave Cerando's empty-handed, especially because we had to pass glass cases of prepared food on the way out. (A gourmet shop is adjacent to the dining room.)

The take-out crab cake was an outstanding, fist-sized ball of jumbo lump and back-fin meat, spicy on the outside and sweet at the core. We loved the nutty taste of a salad featuring quinoa, a grain that looks like a cross between couscous and sesame seeds. Ditto for fresh spinach sauteed with roasted pine nuts in garlic oil.

Cerando's Kitchen and Bistro

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Open: For lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95 to $6.95; entrees $12.95 to $17.95

Credit cards: MC, V

Call: 410-750-3353

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