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Candle Light Inn quietly updates classic dining

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A perennial inclusion on lists of old Baltimore dining favorites, the Candle Light Inn is the kind of landmark restaurant that we like knowing is still around, even if we don't go there. Its picturesque appearance and prominent crossroads location on Frederick Road has can create nostalgic memories of romantic dinners even in those who have never dined there.

Count me among the uninitiated. When I imagined what dining would be like at the Candle Light Inn, I pictured relish trays, shrimp cocktail and escargots in mushroom caps. Today's dining experience at the Candle Light Inn does remain faithful to a bygone time, but it's not the midcentury era of "Mad Men." Some vestiges of that classic American menu remain, but for the most part, today's dining experience is rooted more firmly in the late 1990s, when the Candle Light Inn removed its formal collar.

The Candle Light Inn today is neither here nor there. Some diners will enjoy dining in a trend-free zone. They're not going to baffle you with small plates, bore you with information about which farm your chicken came from or frustrate you by constructing your meat and potatoes into a weird tower. On the other hand, they're not delivering a consistently satisfying meal steeped in traditional dining values, either.

The hushed, carpeted main dining room looks freshly decorated and well tended. But it's caught in an awkward space between the formal and the contemporary, and it lacks the grace notes you'd expect in a room where $25 entrees are served. There are, for instance, plastic caddies for sugar where you expect something prettier. The room works fine as the setting for a quiet and civilized lunch. At dinner, though, it takes on an institutional feel, which explains why most diners end up in the lounge or out on the covered patio.

What the Candle Light Inn will give you, intermittently, are sturdily prepared dishes in a relaxing atmosphere. At its absolute best, the kitchen can turn out tournedos of beef au poivre you'd be thrilled to see on any restaurant table. A full-bodied brandy-mushroom sauce has a deep-stock flavor, and the tenderloin offers robust, seared-in taste. A slice from a galette of au gratin potato is flaky and buttery, and exactly what you may have come looking for.

But other entrees get lukewarm responses. There was an ambitious setting for a grilled pork tenderloin — braised Swiss chard, creamy stone-ground grits, plump blackberries and a cherry sauce. But the pork itself was dry and felt distant from everything else on the plate, including the underseasoned grits. It just doesn't add up to its $26 price.

The menu doesn't say much about an entree of sauteed shrimp and scallops, served with peas, tomatoes and ricotta gnocchi. And there's not much to say — the seafood doesn't taste persuasively fresh, and an indeterminate creamy sauce didn't add much interest or flavor. The light gnocchi were the best thing about this dish, which arrived topped, unhelpfully, with shredded cheese.

As part of its late-century concession to changing times, the Candle Light Inn introduced a light-fare menu for its remodeled tavern and its new covered patio. (There are a lot of menus at the Candle Light Inn — the Inn Menu, the Light Fare menu, luncheon, early dinner specials, and weeknight specials like Tuesday's $10 catch of the day. Maybe that's too many.) The light fare menu offers things like wings, burgers, blackened beef quesadillas and crab dip. From here, we tried bluepoint oysters, served with a cocktail sauce, and fries tossed with duck confit and fontina cheese. The menu says the fries are finished in duck fat, but they don't taste like it.

Over a dinner and lunch, we also tried a very creamy seafood bisque that a drop of sherry would have done wonders for, fried green tomatoes that were fried too long, a good flank steak sandwich with horseradish sauce and a slapdash Book Maker Salad with watery shrimp and rolled-up luncheon meats.

It was the bookmaker salad that made me lose some sympathy. I get not wanting to be fancy, but the meats should be better and the greens and shrimp should be fresher. Things can start to feel complacent. That's a shame, because the serving staff here is polite and efficient, and there are enough redemptive moments — like the peach fruit crisp we had for dessert, a fine country inn-style dessert — to make you think all the Candle Light Inn needs is a good second wind.

I'm glad the Candle Light Inn is there, but I'm not sure where it should head now, except that it should be forward.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

 

The Candle Light Inn

Where: 1835 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Contact: 410-788-6076

Hours: Open for dinner daily and for lunch Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$10; entrees, $17-$30

Food: ¿¿ 1/2

Service: ¿¿¿

Atmosphere: ¿¿1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ¿¿¿¿; Good: ¿¿¿; Fair or Uneven: ¿¿; Poor: ¿]

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