Reinvention has made BlueStone even better

Successful bar has given way to restaurant for upscale dining

Sunday Gourmet

December 05, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

In my experience, restaurants don't get better with age once the shakedown period is over. If they are a success, management is careful not to change things much. If they aren't, all sorts of desperate measures are taken to try to attract customers. At best, they find a lowest common denominator. At worse, they die a slow death.

OK, that's a gross generalization, and along comes BlueStone to prove me wrong.

When it opened three years ago, it immediately became a Timonium hotspot. The food wasn't bad, but BlueStone was first and foremost a very successful bar. There was not one quiet corner in the huge (10,000-square-foot) space, and the menu was as much about pub food and sandwiches as it was fine dining. I gave the place a mixed review.

But recently people have been telling me what good meals they had there -- not people who would be satisfied with bar food, even very fine bar food. I decided to give it another try.

BlueStone now takes reservations, change No. 1, and don't make the mistake of thinking that on a weeknight you won't need them. There isn't a space to be had in the huge parking lot. When we enter the restaurant, straight into the bar, the noise hits us with physical force.

I creep up to the hostess stand and ask timidly, "Is there a ... quiet table?" Sure, the hostess says brightly. Follow me.

Change No. 2: The dining area she leads us back to was a lounge with a pool table on my first visit. It's been converted into a comfortable, contemporary dining area done in deep reds and blues, with booths as well as tables, artful little prints and soft lighting. "Quiet" might be stretching it, but the noise level is definitely bearable.

Change No. 3, the big one: BlueStone has become a casually upscale seafood restaurant. A few other things are on the menu, but fish and shellfish are the big story here.

Most notably, a separate sheet, labeled "The Fish Market," lists four fish of the day beyond the salmon, sea bass, ahi tuna and halibut on the regular menu. The menu gives you their provenance and recommends cooking methods and sauces; you make the final choice. So, for instance, you can sample less usual fish like Tasmanian ocean trout, which has salmon's blush color but the mild, moist flavor of trout. Although it isn't exactly a fatty fish, it stands up just fine to being grilled; the tomato-chive beurre blanc my friend chooses lends it an edgy vitality.

Less is left to chance with the fish on the regular menu. Halibut comes with a crab stuffing; tuna with a cucumber wasabi sauce provides one of the few Asian notes to the menu. A fine fat hunk of salmon resists being just another cliche with its unexpected pink peppercorn reduction and bits of red wine-poached pear that add a delicate sweetness to the dish.

Snowy scallops, seared to a mahogany brown, lie nestled on a bed of rice. Their buttery sauce offsets the sweetness of golden raisins with almonds, pine nuts and ginger.

Each day brings a choice of raw oysters. This evening it's unbelievably sweet, meaty Blue Points or more complex (but somewhat gritty) Canoe Lagoon oysters from Alaska. "Stone" Shrimp are as close as BlueStone comes to a signature appetizer. These plump beauties come with a garlicky cream sauce with mushrooms. They lounge attractively on a hunk of toasted baguette, the better to soak up the cream.

Thai calamari, classic fried calamari with a penetrating bit of sesame oil and a sweet vinegar dipping sauce, was the highlight of our first visit. It says a lot for how impressively the food has improved when I say we virtually ignore this still very good dish this time.

For those not interested in seafood, there are always a couple of soups to begin your meal, like the sexy pumpkin and roasted jalapeno bisque, with a silken smooth texture, deep flavor and delayed kick. Follow it with one of the steaks or the new cranberry mustard chicken, which enlivens boneless chicken breasts with a full-bodied, slightly fruity sauce. Crusty little roast potatoes and just tender broccolini go with both the seafood and non-seafood dishes better than they have any right to.

BlueStone is proud of its homemade desserts and rightly so, although this time of year I would leave off the droopy strawberry garnish. They range from the simple (a plain-Jane but delicious cheesecake) to the sublime (a marbled pumpkin custard pie) to the ridiculous (the snowball du day). But you know what? The snowball -- made of chocolate ice cream, peanut butter chunks and crushed Butterfingers -- is the hit of the table, triumphing over even the triple chocolate mousse cake.

Although we were warned we might have to wait for our waiter to get to us if we insisted on sitting at a booth rather than a table (we did anyway), the service is fine, with a second waiter picking up the slack when our first one gets particularly busy.

The bottom line? BlueStone has reinvented itself when it didn't need to. It turned itself into a very good, mostly seafood restaurant when it was doing well as an upscale bar and dining room.

Now that's impressive.

BlueStone

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 11 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner; Sunday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11; Entrees: $14-$28

Call: 410-561-1100

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