A historic inn that rewards the drive

Pull a chair up next to the fire and stoke your appetite with a rich and varied menu.

Sunday Gourmet

October 27, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Put the Elkridge Furnace Inn on your list of destination restaurants, the ones like the Milton Inn in Sparks, Antrim 1844 in Taneytown and Tersiguel's in Ellicott City. These are the places you're willing to take a bit of a drive to get to because of the romantic appeal of the setting.

The restaurant and caterer was originally a tavern, built in 1744. Around 1750, an iron-smelting furnace was constructed on the property. It then changed hands several times until the Ellicott family (of Ellicott City fame) bought it in the early 19th century and built an elegant brick home attached to the tavern.

Fast-forward to the late '80s and early '90s, when the buildings were restored by Dan Wecker and his brother Steve. In 1991 the home, which has 23 rooms with 12 fireplaces and is on the National Register of Historic Places, was selected as a show house to benefit Historic Ellicott City Inc. The results are still on display and make for very pretty dining rooms. (The designers were asked to stick to the appropriate periods.)

Dan Wecker is listed as the owner / chef of the inn. You might worry that someone who can do actual hands-on restoration might not also be a decent chef, or at least I worried, but the guy can cook. He was an assistant chef at Kings Contrivance before he moved on to this project.

When I first ate at the Elkridge Furnace Inn eight years ago, it was open for lunch and only two nights a week for dinner. You could tell the place was a labor of love. You forgave the amateur service and the ups-and-downs of the meal because it was such an appealing setting.

Since then, the staff has gotten its act together. The service is unobtrusive, attentive and well paced. And the menu is a lot more interesting.

It's also quite expensive -- maybe more expensive than it should be, although these days everything seems more expensive than it should be. Not to mention that some nickel-and-diming goes on, such as the $2 charge for splitting desserts.

When you have appetizers like a parfait of smooth butternut squash layered with even smoother creme fraiche and fat lumps of crabmeat, then topped with caviar, the prices seem justified. They don't when you consider the too heavy, too soft homemade rolls or the too tough pork loin or the tomato fennel soup, which needed to be pureed and had a thin layer of grease on top.

At its best, this is rich, classically French food in large portions (although there are some off-the-beaten-path surprises, such as a special appetizer of Frenchified but quite good sushi rolls made with crab legs).

A "beggar's purse" of puff pastry filled with duck meat and mushrooms and finished with a traditional orange sauce was a plush and luxuriant surprise. Fruits de mer "Romano" might seem ordinary, but the pasta and its layer of fat shrimp and scallops reached new heights. The homemade pasta twists soaked up the calorie-laden, anise-flavored cream sauce more engagingly than you can imagine.

The menu changes monthly. As the cold weather approaches, it's meat- and game-heavy, and there are plenty of seasonal ingredients and bold spicing. The semi-boneless partridge, for instance, offers juicy, crisp-skinned flesh nicely set off by apple butter and a sweet potato and chestnut puree. Dinners come with vegetable and a starch, most likely mashed potatoes and a mix of carrots, fresh green beans and pencil-thin asparagus spears.

Your best bet, if cost is a consideration, is the prix fixe menu, which includes nonalcoholic drinks and dessert -- no small matter considering that a la carte desserts are $8. You can get three courses for $38, four for $43 or five for $48.

As it turned out, the chewy pork stuffed with pine nuts and spinach wasn't the best choice I could have made from the prix fixe menu. The New York strip steak, with a sweet ginger and onion marmalade, would have been better. It was superb: gloriously well marbled and cooked just as ordered.

Desserts were pleasant without being sublime. A ginger cheesecake, chocolate decadence, and individual apple tart were gussied up with three sauces, whipped cream and squiggles of this and that; but the sauces actually outshone the desserts themselves.

Even though I have to complain about some things that weren't perfect -- you're forced to nit-pick at these prices -- the Elkridge Furnace Inn kitchen does a lot of things right. Add that to a table near the fire in a comfortable upstairs dining room and understated service, and you've got a winning combination.

Elkridge Furnace Inn

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***H

Atmosphere: ***H

Where: 5745 Furnace Ave., Elkridge

Hours: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch Sunday, dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$9; main courses, $17-$28

Call: 410-379-9336

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

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