An outpost for traditional fare

The Valley Inn oozes history, but the cooking and prices don't match

Sunday Gourmet

March 23, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Valley Inn is weighted down with history. You can almost see the ghosts sitting on the porch watching the dog races or the illegal cockfights.

All that ended midway through the last century, of course, but the menu is still filled with dishes from another era: celery stuffed with cream cheese for an appetizer, crab imperial, turkey a la king, wienerschnitzel.

Traditional Maryland fare lives on at the Valley Inn. Just take a look at the menus from the '40s posted in the foyer; they aren't that much different from the one you'll be ordering from -- except for the prices, of course. The turkey a la king cost $2 then, not $19, which may be taking inflation a little further than it should be taken.

The rambling building has been there since 1832. The somewhat Spartan dining rooms inside have been spruced up a bit since my last visit, but they still have that undefined period look: bare hardwood floors, deep green walls, gold-framed pictures and a gas fire in the fireplace. The foyer still looks a little threadbare. The bar is the liveliest spot on a weeknight -- perhaps because you can smoke if you eat in there, perhaps because it's the warmest room in the place.

Maybe you have to live in Greenspring Valley to appreciate the place. I'm all for historic charm and traditional Maryland fare, and I'm even willing to put up with a drafty dining room if the waitresses are friendly and the food is good. Well, they got it half right.

I'm not cutting the kitchen much slack because most entrees cost around $20. And much of what went wrong with our meal could have been easily fixed. Start with getting the food to the table while it's still hot. The generous amount of crab imperial was baked in a shell-shaped ramekin that should have held the heat quite awhile. What could have been a fine version of an old favorite instead came to the table overcooked and just about at room temperature -- and this wasn't a toasty room. Wiener-schnitzel a la Holstein was topped with a cold fried egg.

Some things aren't so fixable. The Valley Inn steak, a sirloin cooked exactly as ordered and flavorful enough, was tough. Fried oysters were hard to find within their heavy breading, and weren't really worth finding once we did. The too-sweet stewed tomatoes raised the perplexing question: Should I eat them with my dinner or save them for dessert? Spinach and green beans might have been fresh, but they were overcooked and didn't taste as good as the lima beans and peas, which weren't.

There were some bright spots. Dinners come with little corn muffins and soft parkerhouse rolls, which were kind of nice in a retro sort of way. Delicate rounds of fried eggplant melted in our mouths. The shrimp cocktail was pleasant enough. (Appetizers are somewhat limited, especially when there are no oysters or clams on the half shell. You can always have chilled tomato juice, I suppose.)

Celery stuffed with cream cheese and blue cheese comes decorated with half a jar of olives -- the sort of appetizer you wish you'd ordered with an old-fashioned, if you drank old-fashioneds. The soup of the day, chicken rice, worked as comfort food. A decent merlot (Kendall Jackson, served by the glass) almost balanced the fact that cosmopolitans are served in sherbet glasses.

Surprisingly, the house salad was probably the brightest of the bright spots, especially as you might be expecting iceberg lettuce and winter tomatoes a la 1960s. It had lots of spring mix, decent slices of tomato, various fresh vegetables and a respectable blue-cheese dressing.

As for desserts, brown betty was homemade and warm, but lacked any crumb topping and would have been better with ice cream than the enormous swirl of sweetened whipped cream. An amaretto parfait would have been better without the whipped cream and maraschino cherry. (Don't get me wrong. I adore whipped cream, but there's a time and place for everything.) A forgettable cheesecake and a chocolate mousse cake were clearly not made in house.

I think this place could be better. It could do the same things it's doing, serve the same kind of food -- even at the same prices. But it needs to do some serious tweaking. On the other hand, the Greenspring Valley folks who have been coming here forever and love it dearly -- well, maybe they like the Valley Inn just the way it is.

Valley Inn

Food: **

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 10501 Falls Road, Brooklandville

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$9; main courses, $16-$39

Call: 410-828-8080

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

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