Al Parsons has no clue how his restaurant got its name. But because it had a good reputation when he bought it 25 years ago, he's never changed the name. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Cacao (pronounced KO-ko) Lane is upholding its good reputation still. Housed in an imposing building constructed around 1834, the 28-year-old restaurant and bar overlooks Ellicott City's charming Main Street.
Inside the cozy dining room, votive candles under beaded shades cast a romantic glow over the tables. A little jazz piping away in the background, unobtrusive service and a menu sprinkled with a decent number of French entrees make this an ideal place for a romantic dinner or special event.
We started our meal off with a first-rate Caesar salad - a well-arrayed mix of romaine, large croutons and grated cheese. The crab dip rated well, too, brimming with enough lumps of sweet crab meat to warrant the $10.50 price tag. It and another dip, a creamy, subtle blend of artichoke, spinach and cheese, were served with wedges of chewy French bread.
Cacao Lane's excellent black-bean soup has been on the menu since 1974. Beans cooked al dente give the herb-infused soup a wonderful texture. The soup also is lighter than the average black bean, which makes it more palatable during the summer.
Meat is a good choice at Cacao Lane. Our steak Diane and venison (the latter a special) were cooked exactly as ordered. However, the sauces that accompanied the meats were barely distinguishable from each other. We found a few peppercorns in the sauce over the venison. But once we'd consumed them, we were left with a lot of bland brown gravy.
We tried a rockfish and shrimp special served with a light, buttery sauce. The seafood was fine and tender, but the sides of rice and green beans were unremarkable - the former was cold and the latter overcooked and cold.
Among desserts, the showstopper was a moist chocolate-banana cake dusted with crushed nuts that left us hungry for more. Close seconds were a multilayered fluffy chocolate cake with chocolate icing and a slice of homemade cheesecake with a crumb crust that tasted like pure caramel. Running a distant third was a chocolate mousse that had no chocolate flavor at all.
As befitting a restaurant geared toward special occasions and romantic meals, Cacao Lane is not cheap; a three-course dinner and drinks for four cost $200.
Where: 8066 Main St., Ellicott City
Open: For lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers $3 to $10.50; entrees $16.50 to $26.50
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Food: * * 1/2
Service: * * *
Atmosphere: * * * 1/2