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Restaurant Review: In Mount Airy, Drovers Grill offers unexpected pleasures

You'll find Drovers Grill & Wine Co. along a quiet and hilly stretch of western Howard County highway in Mount Airy. Iif you wanted to take a nice walk after dinner, you could stroll over to Carroll and Frederick counties and make it back in time for an after-dinner drink.

Sweet at its core, maybe a little odd, Drovers Grill, which opened last November, is an unpretentious yet fairly ambitious family-run restaurant. On a recent night, Kevan Vanek, the ebullient paterfamilias, was in the kitchen, working alongside one of his seven children. A daughter was trailing our waiter. Vanek's wife was enjoying a rare night off.

The single rectangular dining room has been lovingly restored and personally decorated by the Vaneks. In its center is a large copper basin, the nexus of the restaurant's wine operations. Still, diners will probably not remember any particular aspect of its decor — just that they simply felt comfortable being there.

Vanek has developed a menu with a great deal of interest in the local, the sustainable and the seasonal. That may not groundbreaking, but it comes across as absolutely in earnest. What is original is Vanek's commitment to Maryland wineries — only Maryland wines are served at Drovers Grill & Wine Co.

That's ambitious and maybe a little quixotic, but the well-trained servers are quick to pour tastes of wines for anyone who asks, and, if Vanek is working the dining room, it's his custom to visit each table with an introduction to his Maryland wine program.

The dinner menu, handwritten in a style evoking a provincial cafe, tends to be too reticent and vague. In a few places it's inaccurate — beef tartare is really beef carpaccio; a tuna tartare duo is a really a tuna tartare and raw seared tuna. Elsewhere, it misses opportunities to help diners make decisions or understand the chef's intentions.

The menu's basic breakdown begins with a dozen or so appetizers, a few soups and a handful of salads. The first of two entree groupings, "signature steaks and meats," has Vanek working in the "farm-to-table" vernacular, particularly with Black Angus beef, which he buys by the steer; the second entree category is a catchall of "seafood, pasta and more."

At the start, there's a generously portioned and thoughtfully assembled artisanal cheese platter, consisting of four goat cheeses from Firefly Farms in Garrett County. A good introduction to the state's premier cheese maker, the plate is plumped up with marinated olives and small portions of tasty jams, but it needs good crackers or homemade bread to taste the cheeses with, anything but the slices of soggy buttered toast — microwaved, we thought — that the kitchen sent out. This was the evening's only real irritation.

The rest of the meal, including the other appetizers and the entrees, struck a consistent chord. There were no moments of rapture but neither were there fundamental problems. Effort and concern were always apparent — I loved the buttery carrots and wax beans that arrived as sides with our entrees. The servers proudly describe and recommend the kitchen's cooking.

An appetizer of pillowy soft, cornmeal-fried oysters, served attractively in half-shells, shows off Drovers Grill at its best: elegant and humble on the same plate. Worth knowing, too: The hearty, good-tasting bacon-wrapped meatloaf entrée livens things up; loaf slices are stacked, Napoleon-style, with potatoes, dressed with a robust gravy. What the menu calls a duo of tuna tartare turns out to be a combination of citrusy but slightly mushy, very refreshing tuna tartare along with seared tuna on mesclun greens, served with a mustard sauce that feels too strong for it. Both are fine, but neither one makes an emphatic statement.

Vanek has two showpiece entrees. The Black Angus platter is desingned to show off the kitchen's skills with a range of cuts, which are variously smoked, Wellington-style, and grilled simply. It comes so close, up until the moment of plating, when the respective sauces and starches are allowed to blur together and obscure one another. It's an easy fix. Also close is Vanek's take on cioppino or bouillabaisse, which he calls "Kevin's pot o' wellness." The broth's flavors were deep and rounded, the seafood and linguine well handled, but it was unpleasant to find bay leaves floating about and so much sediment on the bowl's bottom.

Dessert was limited to a mousse trio and a few other items, but I think Drovers Grill is the kind of place that gets truly inspired about dessert when hot weather and fresh fruit come around.

The reasons why people grow to love, or at least decide to patronize, a restaurant are made up of intangible things. What Drovers might lack in sophistication and polish it makes up for in heart, and if not everything's perfect here, at least not yet, you find yourself rooting for the place, its food and the people who run it.

I think you'd like Drovers Grill best if you happen upon it, or remember it when you're headed back into town from a day trip. The heart is all there. I think by summer we'll know if it's a keeper.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Drovers Grill & Wine Co.

Where: 17004 Frederick Road, Mount Airy

Contact: 410-489-7717, droversdining.com

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, and for Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$11 Entrees, $15-$28

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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

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