Ingredients are there, but the magic is missing

An ambitious menu amid a country-house setting fails to deliver

Restaurant profile

August 04, 2006|By SHEILA YOUNG | SHEILA YOUNG,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sometimes all the ingredients are there for a magnificent dish, but they don't add up to magic for some reason.

And sometimes all the ingredients are there for a superb restaurant - and yet missing the magic, it is less than what it could be. Such was a recent visit to the Kings Contrivance.

Kings Contrivance could be the premier restaurant in the region. In an area where land is hard to find and even harder to pay for, it has plenty. Its country-house setting feels miles away from the nearest neighbor, setting a gracious mood without making guests drive for hours.

Its menu is ambitious, which counts a lot in a county where even national-franchise offerings are jammed every night.

And yet, the restaurant's fine ingredients never added up to magic.

The restaurant offers a perfect setting for summer dining, with a "garden room" full of glass windows that could show off a lovely view. But the view is mostly grass and scabby-looking patches.

The room is painted with a beach-blue ceiling and bright yellow walls, which draw the eye away from the view and jar the eye; there is nothing else in the decor to tie the colors together. The carpet does not match the other colors, looks tacky and, the night we were there, was streaked with dark stains.

All could be overlooked if the promising menu came through. Alas, most of the food had good ingredients but lacked that magic that could make Kings Contrivance the best.

The restaurant boasts a "Wine Spectator Mark of Excellence." And there is a large selection of bottles, none of which are overly marked up (kudos on the pricing restraint). But despite its large trove, Kings Contrivance offers a skimpy selection of wines by the glass. By contrast, it offers 15 - 15! - martinis, though the restaurant vibe is much more wine crowd than trendy-martini group.

For appetizers, we enjoyed the portabella mushroom with couscous, though the tapioca-size couscous fell right through the wide-tine forks we were given - a small detail that nevertheless detracted from an otherwise fine dish. Why would a restaurant that cared this much about making an interesting dish want to force its diners on a scavenger hunt for a key ingredient?

The house-made mozzarella had a similar problem. It was served with hydroponic tomatoes - odd indeed in the middle of the summer tomato harvest - and shaved basil. All the ingredients were fine in their way. The mozzarella tasted very fresh and appropriately sensuous. But as she served the dish, the server also plopped kitchen-style bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table. No explanation was given. We realized we were meant to apply our own dressing, but the pouring was difficult to regulate, and we were left wondering why on earth the kitchen would make its customers do it themselves.

Shellfish bisque with sherry was an even bigger disappointment. It looked great, and we couldn't wait to dig in. The beautiful pink broth showed a good portion of shrimp and crab, and had a nice texture. But the shrimp had an unpleasant metallic taste, and several had not been deveined. There was no taste of sherry. Only a large addition of salt brought some flavor.

Among our entrees, veal oscar arrived nicely topped with a generous portion of lump crabmeat, but the veal was dry and tough to cut, and the asparagus and hollandaise were strangely flavorless. The dish overall tasted bland despite the quality ingredients and was served barely lukewarm.

Jumbo seared scallops were very large, very fresh and perfectly cooked. But they had almost no flavor. And the white scallops were served in an ugly white industrial-style bowl with a thick rim that showed wear.

We hit good chocolate for dessert: a brownie - warm and rich - topped with a scoop of ice cream and caramel, and a gratuitous but harmless sour cherry sauce. The fresh berry shortcake, however, was almost inedible - a dry square propped on a bowlful of overly tart mixed berries garnished with a stingy portion of whipped cream.

Oh, what might have been.

The Kings Contrivance

Where:

10150 Shaker Drive, Columbia

Call:

410-995-0500; 301-596-3455

Hours:

Lunch - Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner - Sunday, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Food:

*** Ambience: *** Service: ***

[ Rating system: Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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