Rockfish -- the fish of the day -- at McFaul's IronHorse… (Chiaki Kawajiri, For The…)
On paper, McFaul's IronHorse Tavern has everything going for it: A charming location, an appealing menu with a focus on local flavors, friendly staff.
That's a good start. But in practice, the restaurant needs some fine-tuning.
Start with the name. Officially, it's called McFaul's IronHorse Tavern at Sanders Corner. Descriptive, but a mouthful.
The name McFaul's represents the current ownership: Glen and Kristin McFaul are two of the restaurant's five owners. "IronHorse" is a nod to the old Northern Central Railroad tracks — the NCR Trail runs behind the building.
And "at Sanders Corner" captures the history — the restaurant occupies the Sanders Corner building in Hampton. Originally a blacksmith's shop, the space was once a post office and, between 1956 and 2011, housed several restaurants.
The McFauls and company opened the tavern in June, aiming to be a casual, family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant serving good food. For the most part, that's what they are.
Around 7:30 on a recent Thursday night, the parking lot was packed. Inside, the deck and bar area were full, so we headed down a winding ramp into a third dining area, the "Baltimore Room."
The deck, with its wooded view, was lovely, and the bar's wood-lined walls were warm and cozy. The Baltimore Room was airy and bright, with tall windows. But despite the black-and-white photos lining the walls, it lacked the bar and deck's charm.
Our waitress greeted us with a smile, as well as a mile-long list of beers on tap, rattled off with impressive speed. The drinks menu and wine list were equally daunting, with dozens of choices.
We started with a Heavy Seas Loose Cannon ($5) and, off the drinks menu, the Country Thyme ($8) and Salty Dog ($9). The hoppy beer was the best of the bunch.
The Country Thyme promised a mixture of blueberry, lemonade, thyme and vodka; the Salty Dog was a gin-and-grapefruit concoction in a salt-rimmed glass. Both sounded great, but neither packed as much of a punch as we hoped.
McFaul's owners gave chef Evan Corser, formerly of Looney's in Bel Air and the Harp in Perry Hall, free rein to execute his local and seasonal vision in the kitchen. Conceptually, his menu was spot-on, featuring bar and family-friendly hits with local twists. Unfortunately, execution was spotty.
A striper bites appetizer ($11) was made with tender local rockfish, but the beer-batter coating was too thick and a bit bland.
House-smoked fish pate ($10) was better. The pate changes regularly; during our visit, the creamy spread featured trout. The fish's smoky flavor paired well with briny capers, served on the side. The only drawback: While chewing, we found about a dozen tiny fish bones.
A rockfish entree ($21) — the fish du jour — made up for the disappointing striper bites. The fish was firm, seared to crispy on the outside and flaky in the middle. Citrusy mango salsa brightened up the fish and earthy wild rice gave the dish heft.
We also enjoyed the filet tip sandwich ($14), a sophisticated take on the steak sandwich. Bite-sized slices of tender, medium rare filet, topped with fried onions and roasted red peppers hit all the right savory and sweet spots. Nutty, melted Manchego cheese added a hint of sophistication without going overboard. Dijon garlic spread got lost in the mix of flavors, but we didn't miss it.
Here and there on the menu, McFaul's recommended wine pairings. Suggested with the sandwich, the Ferme de Gicon Cotes du Rhone ($8 per glass) was a fruity red that balanced the rich cheese and meat.
Intrigued by the description, we tried the 12-ounce "filet-cut" sirloin steak ($19). Unfortunately, it was more gimmick than great idea.
The steak was flavorful and we loved the herb butter accompaniment. But the cut — round and large like a softball — did nothing to enhance the meat; in fact, it may have gotten in the way of proper cooking. Ordered medium rare, the steak was just rare when it arrived.
On the side, paper-thin, house-made Old Bay chips had nice spicy flavor but would've been crispier fresh out of the fryer. They tasted a few hours old.
Thanks to super-moist carrot cake ($5), made by Sasscer's Cheesecakes, dinner ended on a high note.
But as we waited for the check, we spied a busboy sweeping in the corner of the room. With several tables still eating, end-of-evening cleanup seemed premature. Along with a few other glitches — forgotten appetizer plates, a runner who couldn't identify what the steak sandwich was — the early cleanup suggested the McFaul's staff, while enthusiastic, was still green.
After dinner, we joined the crowd for drinks on the deck. With the leafy view in front of us and drinks in our hands, food and service problems were easily forgotten.
That's just as well. With a little polish, soon, those problems could be gone for good.
McFaul's Iron Horse Tavern