Welcome to the neighborhood

A new restaurant shows promise with no pretense

Sunday Gourmet

May 16, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If ever a restaurant space had a checkered past, it would be the one at 1528 E. Joppa Road in Towson.

It was once Hersh's Orchard Inn, a much beloved big-ticket restaurant that served classic Maryland food from 1979 to 1997. Then locally well-known chef Michael Gettier bought the space and turned it into a French restaurant, M. Gettier's Orchard Inn. But he closed it after a few years because, he says, he couldn't afford to make the necessary renovations to meet the accessibility requirements.

In 2000, when a deal fell through at the last minute to sell the restaurant to Central Asia, an odd thing happened. Gettier reopened a few nights a week with five tables, a prix fixe menu, and a staff of three (himself, his wife and one waiter) just so he wouldn't lose his liquor license until he sold the restaurant. This was while he was also working at Peerce's Plantation. A year or so later, Gettier closed the Orchard Inn altogether and moved on to become executive chef of Antrim 1844 in Taneytown.

I've kept my eye on the space, but nothing much has happened since then. Which is why I was surprised driving by to see that it had become, without fanfare, the Orchard Landing. People usually tell me these things, especially with space that was once a Very Important Restaurant.

For the last couple of years, it turns out, the location has been owned by G&G Creative Catering. The company decided to open the restaurant quietly a few months ago. When I called to find out more, the person on the other end of the line told me the menu offered some upscale cuisine.

That's true, sort of. But the restaurant isn't the Orchard Inn Reincarnate. One clue: There's a DJ Friday and Saturday nights.

Another clue: There's a pit beef stand in the parking lot.

You have to like this place. When the weather was bad, says G&G owner Dana Gans, you could bring your pit beef lunch in and eat it at the bar, even though until last week the restaurant was open only for dinner.

The Orchard Landing feels like a good old-fashioned Baltimore restaurant, serving the kind of food that's always been a hit here: stuffed flounder, steaks, crab cakes, and -- as of next month -- crabs in the basement. (A basement crab room is actually an excellent idea, separating the mallet-wielding diners from the knife-and-forkers.) This is the kind of restaurant that only works for me if it's run by nice folks. Either these are or they do a great job pretending.

Right now, the Orchard Landing is a study in contrasts. There are white tablecloths and paper napkins. The food is arranged prettily on handsome white plates and sprinkled with chopped parsley, but sauces sometimes come on the plate in a little plastic cup.

A fat portobello mushroom cap stuffed with crab imperial can't get by on its looks; luckily, it's indecently rich and good. Shrimp in their shells, freshly steamed with onions and spices, should be ho-hum but taste better than they have any right to. When the kitchen gets more inventive, I get less interested. A house salad combines greens, walnuts, dried cranberries and feta cheese with canned mandarin orange segments. I say, why?

A 14-ounce strip steak is a decent piece of beef, but it's the sauteed mushrooms and onions served in a bowl on the side that take it to the next level. A very fresh flounder fillet stuffed with more of that good crab imperial looks remarkably similar to the twice-baked potato at its side -- two big yellowish blobs -- but it's completely satisfying.

Unfortunately, the cheese-covered potato isn't. Its insides don't seem to belong to the potato skin they're stuffed in. At least, they've been mashed with new-potato skins and way too much garlic. Prettily cut carrots and zucchini, oddly, demonstrate more of an interest in the looks of food than either the fish or the potato.

Orchard Landing offers a mixed grill, but not your usual mixed grill. It has nothing to do with meat or, for that matter, grilling. The choice was three of the following four: stuffed flounder, crab cake, chicken and salmon. There's really no advantage to ordering a crab cake, a small piece of salmon and two pieces of sauteed chicken together unless you're a restaurant critic and want to try a lot of different stuff. But at least it illustrated that the kitchen knows not to overcook fish or a boneless breast of chicken. The crab cake seemed to be the same basic mixture used to stuff the mushroom and the flounder, and that was fine by us.

Desserts were limited to a traditional chocolate cake with milk chocolate icing or a thin piece of very rich cheesecake offered with a choice of sauce. Neither interested us much, but the coffee was fine.

Some of the food we had at the new Orchard Landing was a four-star example of traditional Maryland fare, some was pretty ordinary. You pay your money and you take your chances. Still, the Orchard Landing has the potential to be a fine neighborhood restaurant. Especially when that crab basement opens.

Orchard Landing

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 1528 E. Joppa Road, Towson

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; main courses, $11.95-$21.95

Call: 410-823-5050

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