Grilled Tuna Fiorentina with grilled asparagus and caramelized… (Algerina Perna/Baltimore…)
The local dining scene is so volatile these days it's good to take a look at a restaurant that seems to be weathering the hard times. There aren't many to take a look at, but one of them is Linwoods in Owings Mills.
I'm sure the recession has hurt, but judging from both what I've heard and a recent visit, the fine-dining stalwart is holding its own.
One way to survive is not to look like you're hurting. No one wants to celebrate a special occasion at a once-grand restaurant that's a little down at the heels. Since my last visit, owner Linwood Dame has brought in Jay Jenkins of the design firm Jenkins/Baer to update the look of the restaurant. It's more contemporary now, with new carpeting, a sophisticated neutral color palette, and new chairs and banquettes. It's still a very comfortable place to be, with the same rich, dark woods, white table linens, good noise control and a fine exhibition kitchen.
Second, anticipate problems and deal with them early. Linwoods still has the very pricey menu and wine list of an expense account restaurant; I figured the pizzas, dinner salads and less expensive "Comfort Foods" had been added recently to lure customers in when they weren't celebrating a special occasion. When I went back through our archives, though, I saw that my 2002 review mentioned that cheeseburgers, dinner salads and pastas, all priced under $20, were part of the menu even then to bring in people for a quick bite after work.
Third, cultivate your regulars. One of the best ways to do that is to have longtime servers, and Linwoods has a number of them. I was impressed at how some of the tables around us greeted their servers like old friends.
Most important, though, is to be consistent in the quality of food and service; and Linwoods is one of the most consistent restaurants I know. The kitchen's bread and butter (probably not the best place to use a food metaphor, but you know what I mean) is simple preparation of quality ingredients. This would be the veal porterhouse, a large, tender chop presented with just a hint of pink near the bone; its dark, intensely rich wine sauce wasn't overdone, so the delicate flavor of the veal came through. The accompanying sauteed spinach was a little bitter, but the grilled onions and fingerling potato halves were simple but fine accompaniments.
The kitchen can be imaginative. A fat fillet of sea bass, lightly crusted with panko crumbs and crushed peanuts, was served over Asian noodles with decorative orange segments. It had a subtle sauce made of citrusy ponzu and, according to our waitress, peanut butter. A pair of chopsticks stuck up jauntily in the pasta.
There also are some surprisingly ordinary offerings, probably because of customer demand. I'm thinking of the large bowl of Maryland crab soup, with vegetables that have been cooked through and through and traditional seasonings. It's served very hot, with an enormous amount of lump crab on top. Good, but sometimes I get nostalgic for the traditional crab claw and meat cooked with the soup.
Linwoods' oyster pan roast appetizer is not so ordinary. It has snippets of crisp bacon, and the plump little oysters are served with a corn stick instead of bread or crackers. There was an unexpected note of sweetness (honey?) in the creamy sauce I could do without.
Some first courses could serve as small plates. The rectangle of "Little Lasagna," a vegetarian version, has either six (according to the menu) or seven (according to our waitress) cheeses, but who's counting? They blend into a harmonious whole, with tender noodles, a spicy red sauce and pesto for decoration. It's more than a traditional half order of pasta before the main course.
A mix of sauteed wild mushrooms in a crisp, buttery pastry shell, too, was more filling than an appetizer. Both would be good to share if you want to follow them with a substantial entree.
A substantial entree would be the linguine seafood heaped with the extravagance of a whole lobster tail, perfectly cooked, shrimp and mussels in the shell. Cherry tomatoes were added for spots of bright color. Be warned, though, this dish is knock-your-socks-off garlicky. Too much garlic for my taste.
"Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon" was on the specials menu; she must be back in vogue because of the recent movie. Linwoods' kitchen does a good job of it, with pieces of beef you can cut with a fork, mushrooms and pearl onions, and the wine-laden sauce with flavor complexity that only comes from hours of cooking.