Around the world on small plates

Restaurant Review

Palate

November 20, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Lee Stumpf and his wife, Karen Lynn, didn't have to reinvent the restaurant they own in Ellicott City. When it was G.L. Shacks, a bar with a dining room, it was quite successful. But as Bob Dylan said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Restaurants that focused on small plates and wine were clearly the Next Big Thing.

"It was time for a change," Stumpf said in a phone interview. I would guess that the success of the Ironbridge Wine Co. and Donna's nearby helped convince them.

Three years ago, the couple started little by little to redo their restaurant. They separated the bar from the dining room with glass doors, added shiny new hardwood floors and updated the look. The result is a pretty, casual -- and now no-smoking -- restaurant and lounge.

"It's not tapas, and it's not meze. It's small plates," said Stumpf about the new menu, which offers 15 small plates of various ethnic origins, from Thai wings to seafood cannelloni. (Strictly speaking, tapas are Spanish and mezes are the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean version.) If you don't like to create your own meal, Leelynn's has nine, mostly American, full dinners, such as crab cakes, roulade of pork loin and a New York strip, all with starch and vegetables.

Wine is definitely part of the mix. Leelynn's has an international list of some 50 bottles and more than a few by the glass.

Eating here, you realize that small plates have finally become mainstream. The menu isn't set up as food to accompany alcohol but simply a different way of having dinner, a sort of mix and match. Start with fried calamari, served with hoisin sauce and a fabulous sour-sweet chili dipping sauce. That same addictive sauce works even better with crisp wontons filled with softly melting cream cheese and lump crabmeat.

The soup of the day was a thick, sweet acorn squash puree that was the consistency of apple butter. The cream of crab or the chicken tortilla is a better bet. If you crave something seasonal, try the autumn salad, with greens, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, goat cheese and crisply fried onions. (Ask them to hold the cherry tomatoes, which somehow don't go with the rest.)

Christian Smith, who was formerly at Harryman House, is the man in the kitchen. His cooking style sometimes involves more sweetness in dishes than I like, but his instincts are good. He bathes wild mushroom ravioli in a suave cream and Asiago cheese sauce, and stuffs cannelloni with shrimp, crab, scallops and tomatoes. Small shrimp arrive on their own, sauteed with tomatoes in a pleasantly garlicky sauce.

Beef tips and asparagus come in a dark wine sauce enriched with portobello mushrooms. This and several other popular small plates can be had in a small or "grande" portion, which, judging by the price, still doesn't equal a full dinner.

Bruschetta aren't delicate canapes here. Smith covers large pieces of focaccia with lump crab, tomatoes, fresh basil and Asiago cheese and bakes them. The result is a hefty sandwich.

Desserts aren't all made in house, but judging by the non-homemade chocolate cake we tried -- half cake and half fudge with pecans and caramel -- that's not a problem. Homemade is good, too -- particularly if the warm empanadas stuffed with an apple filling are on the menu. A chocolate mousse, though, tasted no more special than chocolate pudding.

Leelynn's is a nice little place with no pretensions that produces some very good food. The staff is warm and attentive. Yes, it's uneven (hence the two and a half stars). But give it some time -- the restaurant is still finding its footing.

......................

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

LEELYNN'S

FOOD ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

Address: 9495 Old Annapolis Road, Ellicott City

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Small plates: $5-$13.50

Entrees: $12-$29

Call: 410-715-8500

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

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