Stone Mill Bakery adds dinner to its offerings

Sun restaurant critic

When Stone Mill Bakery expanded its territory (both literally and figuratively) last spring, it got plenty of press for its new Gourmet to Go space. What had been a bakery best known for its artisan breads and wicked desserts started turning out many more soups, salads and sandwiches. It also added pizzas and entrees to its menu.

What you may not have heard about is that this spring, Stone Mill is serving dinner from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every evening. No reservations are taken; but with the expanded seating and the beautiful patio in back overlooking the Green Spring Station's version of a sculpture garden, you shouldn't have any trouble getting a table.

This isn't the kind of place I usually review, but the quality of the other things I've had there made me want to try dinner. You order at the counter. If you want wine with dinner, you bring it. While you're at it, bring your own glassware because the alternative is the little plastic cups you get when you're having lab work done. (OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

Your food, however, will come on china, and you'll eat it with good-quality flatware, not plastic. Once you've ordered, you pick a table and your meal will be served to you.

The menu of dinner entrees, usually about six, changes daily. Each of them is $14.95, and that includes a salad. You can get soup with dinner for $2.50 more.

That was all I knew when we walked up to the counter to order. I had been told to come early, and I can see why. If everyone arrives at, say 6:30 p.m., the kitchen could be in the weeds fast.

There's a paper menu, but most people use the visual aid: Each of the entrees is plated and on display on a little rack by the cash registers. The night we were there, the choices were brisket with a cranberry sauce, a turkey pot pie, lemon-pepper salmon, blackened ahi tuna, scampi over linguini and chicken parmesan with penne in a housemade marinara.

I went back a couple of days later and the menu was almost the same, except that this time there was the Stone Mill's very fine vegetable lasagna, made with a touch of truffle oil. But even without the truffle oil I would have loved the just-tender pasta layered with perfectly cooked eggplant, squashes, red pepper and more.

The lasagna was the standout, but for the price it's hard to beat the flavorful brisket with a discreet bit of not-too-sweet cranberry sauce -- in spite of little roast potatoes that were simply too al dente to make sense with brisket, which is one of the classic comfort foods. Fresh green beans, however, had been cooked long enough but not too long.

The lemon-pepper seasoning on the salmon shouted instead of whispered, so not much of the actual fish flavor came through. But the fillet was fresh and not overcooked. Organic brown rice came with it.

I'd get the lasagna or the brisket rather than the boneless breast of chicken with a parmesan crust next time. It was properly cooked and tasted fine, but it and the penne with marinara were rather ordinary compared to the two dishes I liked best. The chicken did come with a delicious piece of garlic toast.

The price would be right even if dinner didn't include a salad. It's quite a salad: a large bowl of baby greens, red pepper strips, sprouts, marinated cucumbers and grape tomatoes. There are an enormous number of housemade dressings on offer, but I haven't hit on one that particularly works for me yet. Most have too much sugar in them, which isn't something I expected with this kind of food.

If that's not enough to eat, add a soup for another $2.50. The gazpacho is pureed rather than diced, but the flavor is outstanding.

What you shouldn't do unless you want to blow out your budget, is order dessert. Yes, they are tempting and one of Stone Mill Bakery's strengths; but they are expensive. We tried a snowball-shaped individual coconut cake that was to die for, but the equivalent in chocolate was a little stale. (It was the last one in the case.) An apple tart with exquisite pastry was just as fine as the coconut cake. Finally, cookies are always a good bet, particularly the shortbreads filled with lemon curd.

Stone Mill is trying to do several different things with its dinners, and even if it doesn't always succeed, I like the attempt. It's trying to offer gourmet food with fresh, local and organic ingredients whenever possible. And for a place where people are used to paying a lot for its breads and pastries, prices for dinner entrees are surprisingly reasonable. It's a good deal.

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