Bluestone

Tuna Two-Ways at Bluestone features sushi grade tuna with a light coating of sesame seeds and cajun seasoning, pan seared rare, brushed with a cucumber-wasabi sauce and ginger glaze. (COLBY WARE, BALTIMORE SUN / May 26, 2011)

When people tell me how much they like Bluestone, they stop short of gushing. They talk about Bluestone in terms of satisfaction, what a consistent and reliable place it is, but they don't use many superlatives when they do. Partly I think they're worried I'll be bored by Bluestone's straight-ahead American cuisine, but mostly I think they're concerned about whether I'll respond to Bluestone's industrial park setting.

No one has anything bad to say about Bluestone either. It seems to be everybody's fourth or sixth favorite restaurant, which means, essentially, that Bluestone is crowded all the time.

Granted, Aylesbury Road is not the Champs Elysee, but Bluestone's location is convenient to the Beltway and Interstate 83. Imposingly big from the outside, Bluestone manages with good lighting, simple contemporary design and a smart layout to feel comfortable and intimate inside.

A covered patio addition opened last August, and it's a major asset, with handsome flagstone flooring and a smartly designed outer wall featuring pleasing waterfall effects. I'll go further. It's the sweetest patio in four counties, and although it's not air conditioned, overhead fans help stir up some nice breezes. That said, it did get awfully loud on the patio when I dined there on a recent weeknight, although one loudmouth at one large table seemed to be the origin of it all. And it could be the patio is too remote from the kitchen and bar. Drinks took a while to arrive, and it kept our appetizers from being cleared before the entrées arrived.

The menu is a straightforward presentation of small plates, light fare, and entrees.The main attraction here is a section titled the "fish market," which features a handful of regular items (a plantain crusted mahi mahi, a pan-sautéed Chilean sea bass), any of which can be ordered simply grilled instead, along with a featured fish of the day. The individual dishes have this in common – they're all very good, and they all arrive at the table looking as though they've been cared about, fussed over and passed under the critical eyes of a vigilant expediter.

A jumbo shrimp appetizer, served with mushrooms, in sherry garlic cream sauce, may be a deliberate homage to the classic Tio Pepe preparation. If so, it's a flattering one. This was deliciously rich. Just the right amount of sesame oil brightens up a plate of well-prepared Thai-style calamari, which is accompanied by a sweet dipping sauce, which a few red pepper flakes would have done a world of good. Listed under light fare, the prettily arranged Italian chopped salad, loaded up with Italian meats and cheeses, works very well as an antipasto salad.

Best of all early on are the fried green tomatoes in lemon buerre blanc, topped with snowy white "colossal" crab meat, flecked with shallots, chives and garlic. The tomatoes themselves are nicely handled, crispy and firm — a tough trick in such a big restaurant; the preparation is stellar.

Things settle down, as they must, with the entrée course, where the food has been designed less with the desire to thrill than not to offend. That's a sane approach, and if the result is that everything tastes exactly how you think it will, there are worse things that can happen to you at a restaurant than a nice piece of grilled salmon, pretty pieces of pan-seared sushi-grade tuna, and a dandy tenderloin-and-crab cake combination. Sure, there could be a little more "fire" in the farmed salmon's firecracker-style preparation, and the "two ways" of preparing the tuna are essentially the same way but with different sauces. That crab cake, though, was my ideal – lumpy, confidently seasoned and erring on the dry side.

Bluestone is smart about sides. Large spears of steamed asparagus came with our entrees, and there was a pleasing variety of starchy sides on our main dishes. This keeps frequent dining at Bluestone from feeling routine and blah.

There are other reasons to keep coming back. The light fare menu lists only six items, but they're exactly what you'd come for on a random weeknight – entrée salads, a seafood club, a hamburger and a very good shrimp salad wrap. And dessert, made in house, was so good it took me by surprise. A solid key lime pie pleased everyone, but I lost my mind over a strawberry short stack, a pile up of fresh strawberries and flaky shortbread with mascarpone cheese.

The entrance tavern is another plus, and appears to have an avid following all of its own, completely separate from the dining rooms. (Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA is one of the five beers on tap.) Several private and semi-private dining rooms are worth knowing about, too. Keep them in mind for graduation dinners and holiday parties.

Other than a glancing reference to the sourcing and the freshness of the featured fish, the menu is quiet about matters like agendas and themes — the food speaks for itself. That's fine, but you can carry reticence too far. Neither the menu nor the website reveals the identities of Bluestone's owners, and for all of its strengths, Bluestone can remain aloof and corporate.

In short, Bluestone has everything you'd want in a restaurant except maybe a personality.This is not a reason not to go there, but more than anything helps explain why folks like Bluestone but don't love it.

Still, I now have an answer for this question, which I get asked all the time: My in-laws are coming to town, they're impossible to please, and I have no idea where to take them.

Bluestone

Where: 11 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium/Lutherville

Contact:410-561-1100, http://www.bluestoneonline.ne

Hours: Open seven days for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$18 Entrees, $19-$29

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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


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