When they opened Eldersburg's County Cork Wine Pub in 2010, business partners Arlene Stecher and Chris McManus were thinking of their neighbors.
McManus and Stecher, both Eldersburg residents, wanted to build a spot where adults could gather with their friends, enjoying good food and drinks.
They succeeded — and those neighbors have noticed.
On a recent Thursday night, County Cork Wine Pub was packed with couples and chatty groups of friends. We lucked into the last available spot, a high-top table in an alcove toward the back of the restaurant.
The only downside of our semi-hidden location: We weren't immediately on our waitress's radar, so ordering drinks took longer than we would have liked.
But once those drinks came, they were worth the wait. Though Cork is a wine bar, its cocktail list is a good one.
The Eldersburg Martini ($10), a mixture of Van Gogh Blue vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and pear nectar, was a lovely pale orange, with just enough bite to balance the sweet floral flavors of elderflower and pear.
The Cork & Bull ($8) was a fizzy combination of Bulldog Gin, Cointreau, Moscato and port served in a wineglass. On our first sip, we mistook the drink for sangria — until we tasted the bracing backbone of gin.
A mix-and-match cheese board ($12 for three selections; $19 for five) was an excellent backdrop for cocktails. We opted for three choices from a short but thoughtful list of options.
Carefully arranged on a large wooden board, the cheeses arrived with warm crostini, apple slices, grainy mustard, guava paste and herb-marinated olives.
Creamy Monocacy Ash, a goat cheese made at Cherry Glen Farm in Montgomery County, had just enough blue-cheese funk to be interesting without scaring off less adventurous eaters.
A slab of marbled Cahill cheddar from Ireland was sharp and tangy — and the most Irish part of the meal. (Though County Cork is named for an Irish location, it's more of a wine bar than an Irish pub.)
Our favorite part of the board was duck ham, made in house. The ham reminded us of thick-cut bacon, but with the rich flavor of duck.
An additional dish of olives ($5), plus a bowl of Marcona almonds ($5) served warm and tossed with rosemary, added to the spread.
Entrees, though satisfying, could benefit from some of the cheese board's simplicity.
"Airline" chicken saltimbocca ($17) — so named because the chicken's wing was still attached, not because it resembled airplane food — was tender and juicy, garnished with prosciutto, fontina and a herb-cranberry sauce that had us thinking about Thanksgiving. The flavors worked, but there were a lot of them.
The same was true of black and bleu filet tips ($16), blackened beef tips that were generously seasoned but not overly spicy. Dressed with savory roasted shallot demiglace and bleu cheese crumbles, the individual flavors sometimes competed for dominance.
To its credit, a dish of scallops ($24) in blood orange sauce, served over mushroom risotto, kept the focus on a few key ingredients.
The risotto was creamy and elegant; the mushrooms lent it earthiness.
Unfortunately, the scallops were slightly overcooked. They still made a good match for the risotto, but with their tougher texture, they overwhelmed the delicate blood orange sauce.
Prosciutto-topped grilled flatbread pizza ($9) was garlicky and fresh, with the emphasis on the prosciutto, mozzarella and thin slices of tomatoes. Smoky from the grill, the crust had great flavor, but it didn't stand up to the toppings. This was definitely fork-eating pizza.
Fitting for a wine pub, the menu suggests wine pairings for each dish, sticking to varietals instead of specific wines. We opted for the recommended house wines and were pleased with each, from the medium-bodied Mellini chianti ($8) with the pizza, to the mellow and fruity Tortoise pinot noir ($8) with the scallops.
Though service started off slow, it picked up over the course of the evening. Our waitress was friendly and well-versed in the menu, though she wasn't as familiar with the wine list. But when we asked questions she couldn't answer, she tracked down the responses quickly.
For dessert, bread pudding ($7) was accessorized with granola, raisins, dried cranberries and dark chocolate, creating a trail mix-comfort food mash-up. The pudding tasted good, but like the entrees, it might have been better with fewer ingredients.
From creative drinks to tasty (though sometimes complicated) entrees, McManus and Stecher have created something special at County Cork Wine Pub. Judging by the crowds, which were still going strong as we walked out the door, their neighbors agree.
Take a look inside
View more photos of the restaurant at baltimoresun.com/dining.
County Cork Wine Pub
Back story: Opened in December 2010 by Eldersburg residents Arlene Stecher and Chris McManus, County Cork Wine Pub is a fun spot for local people to gather for good drinks and creative food.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: Experiment with the Butcher Board, a mix-and-match board of cheeses and meats served with crostini, olives, and garnishes like mustard, apples and guava paste. The options are varied and appealing — from thick slices of house-made duck ham to creamy Monocacy Ash cheese from Cherry Glen Farm in Boyds.
Where: 1716 Liberty Road, Eldersburg
Contact: 410-970-8110; http://www.thecorkpub.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m Tuesday to Saturday; 10 a.m. through dinner (closing varies) Sunday
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun