The Nov. 4 Neighborhood Flavor column stated incorrectly that the Elkridge Furnace Inn is not wheelchair-accessible. The restaurant has a wheelchair ramp to the first floor and a restroom that is wheelchair-accessible. (Published 11/11/04)
The Elkridge Furnace Inn is a shocker.
Within a stone's throw of afternoon gridlock at Route 1 and Interstate 195, this is a proper early American estate, complete with a three-story manor house, sweeping views of the Patapsco River, huge trees and meandering brick paths. Step inside and it's oh, so soothing. There are tasteful bronze and crystal chandeliers, upholstered gilt chairs, long and lush tablecloths, cheery fireplaces and a real conversation-level ambience.
The inn is the dream and passion of owner-chef Dan Wecker, who bought the property in 1988 and spent six years restoring its 23 rooms, supporting himself with catering jobs and work as a commercial printer.
Half the inn serves as a popular location for storybook weddings. The restaurant, on the first and second floors, is a respite for diners and for Wecker.
He bubbled as he talked about the work that goes into changing everything on the menu every month and about how the process involves everyone in the kitchen and on the service staff. (The only standards that always are on the menu are the French onion soup, the Caesar salad and the house salad.)
The inn is a collaborative effort, and it shows, from the kitchen to the dining room.
At a recent lunch, soothed by the mellifluous voice of our waiter and his calming approach, my dining companion opined that the whole experience was like taking Prozac. And it was. An hour or so at table here made it easier to take on the world outside.
Wecker traces his interest in cooking to the Boy Scouts. He started cooking professionally as a teenager, and rather than the culinary school route of many young chefs today, he learned the old-fashioned way, climbing up the traditional French kitchen's apprentice ranks. That's one reason you'll find endless variations of classic French sauces in dishes on the menu.
Although the French food has earned the inn a reputation as a destination or special-event restaurant -- and it is that, too -- there is nothing pretentious about the menu. Wecker said he doesn't want diners to be intimidated or even to think they have to get really dressed up to dine there. The menu is in French and English, with an explanation of the preparations.
Dinner on a Friday night began with a tasty and tantalizingly tiny crab tart, an amuse-bouche (a welcoming bite of food). Warm, crusty sourdough rolls helped to ease our transition from the chilly night air.
There were only a trio of appetizers and several soups and salads. The foie gras, gently pan-seared and garnished with several figs, was properly cooked but just a little too cool by the time it reached the table. The evening's special mushroom soup, a huge bowl, was creamy and heavy with bits of wild and cultivated mushrooms, and full of flavor.
The menu translation for joue de veau was simply veal, with an explanation that the meat was braised and served with spaetzle, tiny dough shreds or dumplings that are usually cooked in butter. We learned the veal was actually veal cheek, a delicacy in Europe, especially because of its tender and gelatinous consistency. Leave a classically trained chef to prepare his most impressive dish and often that dish will be veal cheek.
Wecker's version included braised shallots, Swiss chard and mushrooms. It showcased the almost melt-in-your-mouth veal, though it wasn't quite as unctuous as I would have preferred.
The steak Dianne, with a marvelous bordelaise sauce, was a beautifully cut piece of beef, though it arrived cooked medium rare rather than the medium we had requested, and when returned to the kitchen it seemed to take far too long to bring it up to the desired doneness.
The molten chocolate cake was dry and overcooked. A cheese plate was lovely to look at, but the selection of cheeses was unimaginative and a bit too cool to fully complement our bottle of Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon.
Wine is one of the real pleasures at the inn. The wine list, which includes prime vintages and selections from wineries from around the globe, is reasonably priced. On Friday and Sunday nights, any bottle on the list is half-price.
The lunch menu is lighter and perhaps even more intriguing. I haven't seen pork rillettes on any U.S. menu in years. At the inn they are served as a lush sandwich.
An appetizer of wild mushrooms in a cream sauce and crispy croutons of fried polenta showed an Italian flair. (But then, as Wecker will tell you, the French-Italian border has moved back and forth over the centuries.) The mushrooms needed a bit of salt, as did several other dishes we tried, and the polenta was too crispy and not quite mushy enough on the inside, but overall the dish was a great starter. The fish soup, which changes daily, was a fine mixture of shrimp and tuna in a rich fish base.
Main courses included the rillettes sandwiches, ubiquitous Maryland crab cakes and pork tenderloin in Dijon mustard sauce. Wild mushroom-stuffed chicken was juicy and full of flavor, served with a red wine shallot sauce. A plate of game sausages over sauerkraut, a decidedly Alsatian touch (that region over the centuries has belonged to Germany and France), was just right for a rainy fall day.
The desserts looked magnificent, but only the light-as-air vanilla cheesecake tasted as good as it looked. By then we were so calm, even that didn't matter.
Elkridge Furnace Inn 5745 Furnace Ave., Elkridge, 410-379-9336, reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; brunch, 1o a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays; dinner, 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5-10 p.m. Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers at lunch, $4-$8; main courses at lunch, $10-$15. Appetizers at dinner, $4-$15; main courses at dinner, $15-$32. Not wheelchair accessible. www.elkridgefurnaceinn.com.
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