When Mark Henry retired as executive chef of the Oregon Grille in Cockeysville a few months ago, it felt something like the end of an era for those who follow the local dining scene. That's impressive considering that for the past 11 years he's headed the kitchen of a restaurant best known for its steaks, chops and traditional Maryland seafood.
Henry, who opened the Oregon Grille and, before that, was known for his imaginative cuisine at places like the Milton Inn, worked with his successor, Stefan Sabo, for continuity's sake; but that doesn't mean there won't be changes now that someone else is in charge. Any chef worth his toque would, of course, want to put his own imprint on the food.
Sabo has an impressive resume: He came from the Willard Room in D.C. and, most recently, Bernard's Inn, a four-star restaurant in New Jersey.
He arrives at a restaurant that has established itself as the premier high-end steakhouse outside of the city. It's housed in what was the Oregon General Store, a 19th-century building at the entrance to Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley.
The large flagstone patio surrounded by a garden is beautiful, and many an important occasion has been held there. Inside it is dark and cool, with comfortable booths, an understated horse-country decor and live music.
This time of year, the enclosed porch is also a very nice place to be seated. You have some of the benefits of eating outdoors without the heat.
Once, the Oregon Grille was one of the most expensive restaurants in the area, but others are catching up. Now it's merely very expensive, with dinner entrees mostly in the $30 to $40 range.
No matter why you're eating there, the staff considers it a special occasion. That means gentlemen are required to wear jackets. It also means that the pace will be leisurely, although not slow. The server, for instance, will wait for you to ask for menus.
For the time being, the Oregon Grille's menu is staying the same, with the section of grilled meats almost as long as the other entrees. There is a long, international wine list with enough reasonably affordable choices; you can also ask for the Captain's List of vintage wines with "limited availability."
The new executive chef's influence is most noticeable in the daily specials. Sabo is on record for eschewing cream and butter for lighter ingredients, so if the well-marbled prime steak isn't on your diet, you might try something like the grilled Australian sea bass fillet, more delicate than the usual Chilean sea bass, served on a bed of sauteed spinach with grilled shrimp and a spicy marinara.
He does dust soft-shell crabs with cornmeal and pan-fry them; but they arrive on a bed of "angel hair" zucchini, and their sauce gets its kick from mustard (too much mustard for my taste; I love the delicate flavor of soft-shells and want nothing to overwhelm it).
Sabo's version of surf and turf is a juicy, fork-tender, grilled rib eye and a fat little crab cake studded with lump meat. It needed to be cooked a few minutes less, but otherwise it was a fine one.
One of the stars of the menu, in every way but visually, is the mixed grill. It's a meat-lover's dream, with a tender, perfectly cooked lamb chop, a round of pork tenderloin, a small rosy-centered filet you could cut with a fork and pink slices of grilled duck breast. Too bad it's piled with crisp-fried onions, which taste great but give the whole plate a very brown appearance.
Sabo's specials included an appetizer of three enormous grilled tiger shrimp. Their mild flavor was accented with the edge of char, and a bit of leek risotto and button mushrooms complemented them. There was a yellow and red beet salad with frisee, walnuts and Montrachet cheese - a salad that's getting to be as much a restaurant menu cliche as creme brulee, but Sabo pulls it off.
But the dish that belongs in the appetizer hall of fame is on the regular menu: the grilled oysters on the half shell in a lemon-butter chive sauce so luxurious it ought to be against the law. The oysters totally outshone a more elaborate concoction of artichoke hearts, goat cheese and tomatoes baked until bubby in a little gratin dish, which wasn't too shabby itself.
Perhaps as homage to some of Baltimore's favorite old-fashioned restaurants (Marconi's, the Woman's Industrial Exchange), the Oregon Grille has a hot fudge sundae for dessert with a thick, rich, salty-sweet housemade fudge sauce. Just as good, in its own lighter way, was the Key lime pie made with fresh lime juice.
But a blueberry slump didn't quite pull off the dumpling part of the equation. The creme brulee was a perfect example of its kind, but not very interesting to me personally.
If I had to offer some advice to owner Ted Bauer, I would say, "Don't get rid of your old menu yet."
Some of the best food we had was from it, not from the specials, which were creative and lighter but not necessarily the reason people go to the Oregon Grille.
Oregon Grille Address: 1201 Shawan Road, Cockeysville
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$14; entrees, $29-$44
Call: 410-771-0505, theoregongrille.com.
Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *