Snuggled into a deep, upholstered lounge chair pulled next to the front window of Jordan's, I watch as the rain falls gently on Ellicott City's Main Street while the throaty whisper of Billie Holiday plays in the background.
The lights are low, the draperies are plush, and the wood-paneled walls create a sanctuary. Couples hold hands at nearby tables. The romance is palpable.
But wait. Jordan's is a steakhouse!
Yes, but this two-year-old jewel has none of the usual high-testosterone steakhouse accouterments: no big-screen televisions, big-game trophies or big-name wines with prices to match. Nestled along a gentle curve of Howard County's historic center, Jordan's is as comfortable as your own great room, and just as informal.
That's what owners Jordan and Ivette Naftal had in mind when they made good on perennial threats to open their own place. "We wanted a romantic, trendy restaurant," explained Jordan Naftal, who opened the first ESPN Zone for the Walt Disney Co. in Baltimore and later opened the Washington location. The updated steakhouse menu followed.
Jordan's fills all three stories of a historic 100-year-old building, which was severely damaged in a spectacular six-alarm fire in November 1999 that crippled the quaint tourist town. Part of that building, known as the Rosenstock, incorporated an even older bridge over the Tiber River. The river runs under Jordan's, and the old bridge buttress is exposed as part of the cozy wine cellar room on the restaurant's main floor. A larger dining room fills the second floor. A smaller room, often used for private parties, is on the third story.
But all is not quite what it seems. The wood-paneled walls aren't real wood; they are expertly painted to look that way. And for all the harmonious warmth of the room, the walls are pumpkin and the drapes are wine. Somehow it all works.
In contrast, the menu is built like that of a classic steakhouse: a few starters, then mostly meat. The wine list, while deep in steakhouse reds, includes an eclectic mix of wines from around the world, most with steakhouse-lite prices (plenty of selections in the $40 to $60 range) and more than three dozen available by the glass, including the venerable Penfolds Grange.
Appetizers include a quintessential shrimp cocktail. The shrimp are first-rate, plump and clean-tasting, served with a tangy cocktail sauce. Light and crispy fried calamari, served in a pasta bowl, are pleasantly accented by homemade marinara. The classics end with the restaurant's version of Caesar salad. Here, a sheaf of romaine is briefly grilled, drizzled with an anchovy-rich dressing, then accented with slivers of roasted tomatoes, pine nuts and shavings of Asiago cheese. My favorite is the tuna tartar, bright and zesty with capers and wasabi, served in a martini glass.
Jordan's offers both choice and prime grades of meat, with either grade for filets (available in 6-ounce and 12-ounce cuts) and New York strips. It also has a prime porterhouse and a choice rib-eye with the bone, sold as a "cowboy" steak, in weights up to two pounds. A rack of lamb and flank steak complete the red meat selections. Jordan's also lists two chicken dishes and several fish choices.
Unlike at some of the big-name national steakhouses, steaks at Jordan's are served with potatoes, either french fried, mashed or baked. Vegetables must be ordered separately.
Sixty percent of the beef sold at the restaurant is filet, Naftal said. That was my choice on two separate visits, with two astonishingly different results. During my first visit the steak was near perfection, slightly charred on the outside and cooked to a rosy medium rare. The meat was as tender as butter and characteristically nutty tasting. The fluffy mashed potatoes were sublime.
But on a more recent visit, my filet -- again ordered medium rare -- was overcooked, to well past medium. To my taste, the meat was nearly dry and lacking all the unctuous flavor and texture. Even the accompanying baked potato seemed tired. In turn, my dining companion's lamb, ordered medium, was an undercooked, bloody red.
I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to complaining, but our waiter -- who until then had been almost too attentive -- was nowhere to be found, though the dining room was not crowded. So I ate my steak, and my companion worked on his lamb.
By the time the waiter came to check on us, most of the food had been consumed. He agreed that the cooking instructions for the two preparations apparently had been switched and vowed that all would be cooked correctly on a return visit. Eventually, the waiter took what remained of the lamb chop back to the kitchen and returned it properly medium. He later presented us with glasses of dessert wine on the house. But such prime meat deserves perfect cooking.
The chocolate pate is my favorite among the desserts. It was decadent dark-chocolate buttery fudge, served atop creme anglaise. The peach sorbet is also terrific.
Jordan's Steakhouse, 8085 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-461-9776. Reservations recommended on weekends. Appetizers, $6 to $14; main courses, $21 to $55. Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
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