WATERSIDE RESTAURANT

The Columbia Inn

10207 Wincopin Circle

Columbia

730-3900

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $14.95 to $19.95.

Credit Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.

Sometimes it seems that hotel restaurants are either culinary temples or plebeian chow halls. The Waterside Restaurant occupies some uncomfortable gray area in between, having all of the elegant ambiance of the former and some of the plodding palate of the latter.

For atmosphere, the Waterside can't be beat: The white linens, classic china, fresh flowers and the reflection of candle flames in an enormous window that overlooks Lake Kitamaqundi are gentility itself. A restrained decor features antique waterfowl prints. The background music is classical. For the best experience, get to the Waterside well before sunset for the splendid view.

Unfortunately, a restaurant that trades on its view more than on its cooking runs the risk of being seen as just another pretty space.

The service is courteous and accommodating, if a little greener than you might expect. The food is good but not excellent. Oh, the sauces are well enough prepared, the ingredients are fresh enough. What the cooking lacks is inspiration.

The "continental" menu here means fairly mainstream beef, poultry and seafood dishes (a few with French sauces) with a regional slant marked by crab meat in many appetizers and entrees. The most adventurous thing on the menu is blackened redfish; nobody goes to a conservative restaurant like the Waterside for adventure.

Yet sometimes the kitchen is a little too conservative, as with the gazpacho sauce that accompanied the shrimp avocado appetizer. What should have been a vivid melange with a little vinegar kick was pale and muted, as if afraid to offend. What did offend was the underripe avocado. But the shrimp were fresh and so was the crab meat in the crab cocktail, a goblet of unadulterated snowy chunks with a standard tomato-horseradish cocktail sauce.

Cold seafood is good here, and you would probably also do well with the smoked salmon or domestic caviar.

The one hot appetizer I tried, artichoke imperial, was two fresh artichoke hearts stuffed with crab imperial that had the unexpected crunch of red and green peppers and was topped with a good hollandaise. Fresh onion soup was ordinary and very salty; better was the crab bisque, a cream-rich preparation loaded with fresh crab, with a tinge of tomato and a slight tang.

The second most adventurous thing on the menu, Oriental salad, was light and refreshing. Crisp greens, julienned carrots, raisins and pine nuts are a nice combination, but be warned that the raspberry vinaigrette is on the sweet side.

Most of the entrees were good, although the veal Oscar was a little too coarse and the "creamy brandy sauce" on my steak au poivre was overstarched and had no evidence of cream. Fettucine Neptune was pasta in a cream sauce with a generous helping of scallops, shrimp and crab meat. The cream sauce was predictably bland, and the pasta had been prepared from dried fettucini. Swordfish noisette was good but unremarkable. Twin scoops of pure backfin crab meat, lightly browned and not too spicy, were the Waterside's version of Maryland crab cakes -- good quality and rich. Chicken Chesapeake (a deep-fried breast stuffed with crab meat, prosciutto and Swiss cheese) had lost all of its moisture.

This kitchen does know how to bring out the best in a vegetable. Zucchini and yellow squash were perfectly done, bright crisp-tender strips. Waterside potatoes were a concerto to the tuber -- en casserole layers of wafer-thin potato slices, ever so subtly suffused with garlic, with a crusty oven-browned top.

I continue to be mystified by the certainty of Howard County restaurateurs that what diners want after a big, heavy meal is a big, heavy dessert. The Waterside is no exception, proferring after our rich meal a sweet tray that included triple fudge Chambord cake, peanut butter fudge pie, creamy apple walnut tart and, heaviest of all, a Kentucky pie dense with pure pecans, coconut and chocolate chips. Most were good, but all cloyed after one or two bites.

Mercifully, the menu includes a fruit Bavarian, which at least gives the illusion of lightness. And you can usually get fresh berries and cream.