If you sat down to a bowl of pasta named after a 19th-century post-Impressionist, would you expect a work of art?
The Artful Gourmet Bistro in Owings Mills has the look and feel of a polite, mid-scale suburban chain with a taste that leans more on market savvy than daring. The restaurant's also apparently, and I think for good reason, a popular place to grab a quick or lingering lunch. But given blackened salmon on grilled focaccia, how does one arrive at Rembrandt?
12:10 We marched past the unattended host station and stopped at a short deli-style counter. We asked the young woman behind the counter for a table for two. She informed us of our options: We could place our orders with her and someone would bring them to our table the main dining room, or we could visit the bar/dining room where we'd have a server. We took the first option, thinking it might save us a few minutes. We did check out the bar area. It looked considerably busier than the main room, and maybe a trace cozier.
For a bistro, the main dining room felt a lot like the cross between a cafeteria and a suburban doctor's waiting room. Despite the warmth of its muted oxblood and olive walls, the space has a vaguely sanitized feel.
12:18 With a quick perusal of the menu you get the Artful connection. Almost every item references an artist, a work or a movement: Dali Calamari, Kandinsky Quesadilla, Surreal Caesar (I'm not making this up); Rousseau, Goya and Rembrandt are featured among the sandwiches. In the closest I'll ever come to purchasing a master, I order an El Greco and a Caravaggio. My dining companion picked up a deal on Starry Night.
12:30 The gimmicks ended where the tines of our forks began. A staffer delivered our pasta dishes and the wrap that I ordered in lieu of appetizer. I wanted an idea of what the lower-priced fare is like if you just want to grab a sandwich or, in the case of the Caravaggio, a wrap.
The Starry Night ($14) is a penne in a piquant marinara with chorizo, chicken and a touch of parmigiana. It's a work of art in name only, but a satisfying taste and a darn fine alternative to paint-by-numbers chain marinaras.
What is it about blackened shrimp (mildly Cajun, firm, smoky), whole wheat linguini in a rose cream sauce with diced tomatoes, peas and Romano cheese that suggests El Greco? Go ahead, embarrass me. But I liked it. The pasta had a nice bready nuance, the sauce lightly creamy, the peas stout and earthy — a nice touch ($14).
Neither dish elicited the jaw-dropping reaction their namesakes do, but they both made above-average lunches. The Caravaggio, especially, is a really well crafted sandwich. It's generous, with grilled chicken strips supported by a fine balance of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, peppers, spinach and lightly spiced mayo in a chewy fresh flour tortilla ($9.50).
Wraps and sandwiches are served with a house or pasta salad; I chose the latter and enjoyed the firm penne, olive oil and goat cheese combo. You can substitute French or sweet potato fries for another 95 cents. The flatiron steak sandwich (The Homer, $11.50) rang flat, a sprinkle of salt perked it up. The grilled Gaughin wrap was enhanced by a creamy artichoke-Parmesan spread that tended to collect in the corners of the wrap ($9.50).
12:41 We're finished and if we didn't have a couple of things to box up, we could have walked out 31 minutes after we walked in. In the time we were seated, the dining room had nearly filled. We asked the counter woman, a remarkably pleasant and helpful person, if the bistro is always so crowded early in the week. She said it's usually busier, with a lot more business folks than we saw this day.
12:50 We depart still wondering about the art connection but agreeing there is skill here. I'm not surprised that the unpretentious service and workmanlike kitchen craft draw crowds.
Note that if you check Artful Gourmet Bistro's website menus, you'll see no mention of prices. This seems like another affectation, but it could just be odd and unhelpful.
Where: 9433 Common Brook Road, Owings Mills
Contact: 410-356-2606, artfulgourmet.com
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday
Lunch entrees: $8-$15
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]
Dining time: 40 minutes