Change, when it comes here, comes slowly, which makes the Manor Tavern an interesting case study. The 250-year-old Baltimore County property, in the thick of world-famous horse country, was purchased last summer by two teams of experienced restaurateurs. William and John Mitcherling own Towson's An Poitin Stil, and Patrick Russell and Bill Irvin operate businesses in Fells Point, including Kooper's Tavern, Slainte and the Chowhound Burger Wagon.
The new operators have been making changes slowly, at more of a canter than a gallop. The menu changes and interior renovations haven't scared off the old guard, and the Manor Tavern is ready now for new guests — even city slickers — to come pay a visit.
On a recent weeknight, when spring had decided to show up a few weeks early, the Manor Tavern was nearly packed. The main dining room, decorated with equestrian art and framed silks of notable steeplechase jockeys, was full. So was the adjoining bar, where folks were enjoying the weekly lobster special.
The staff here is welcoming, even friendly. "You've been fun to wait on," our waitress told us. The Manor Tavern puts customers in a good mood and keeps them there. The cocktails are stiff, the bread, which arrives quickly, is warm and fresh and the menu is a straightforward arrangement of appetizers, soup, salads and entrees. Things may have changed, but the Manor Tavern isn't doing small plates.
In general, the simpler ideas are working better at the Manor Tavern. A mini crab cake appetizer is nothing but three carefully arranged piles of gently sauteed crabmeat alongside dollops of homemade Old Bay tartar sauce. Likewise, a refreshing salad is composed of a sliced baby-lettuce head, dressed with a rich blue-cheese dressing, baby tomatoes, capers and cucumbers. A red-pepper bisque laced with crabmeat, offered as a special, was a highlight of the evening
But a napoleon of tomatoes, fried eggplant and goat cheese, dressed with a pesto olive oil, is a case of style over substance. It's too early in the season for tomatoes to take a starring role. The one selected for this appetizer was pink and mushy.
As never before, the Manor Tavern is serving food that feels like part of the beautiful landscape. For the first time, a working garden is providing produce for the kitchen. Meats are being sourced from local growers like Monkton's own Gunpowder Bison Farms and Albright Farms in Phoenix. For dessert, ice cream is from Prigel Family Creamery, just eight miles down the road in Glen Arm. Even the pretty teacups are made by a local potter.
If this makes the Manor Tavern sound like the next new farm-to-table restaurant, it really doesn't play out that way. Much of the kitchen staff, including chef Travis Szerensits, were in place before the transition. The menu isn't rigid about local sourcing or seasonability.
The simple approach worked better with entrees, too. Brandied cherries and toasted almonds work as subtle and appropriate flavoring for a bison strip steak. A special rib-eye preparation, using melted Boursin cheese in place of the everyday Caribbean rub preparation, is another solid idea. Served with whipped potatoes and string beans, the steaks come across as good evening-out restaurant options. By comparison, a scallops entree is overproduced. The accompanying barley risotto and wilted greens are a fresh idea, but the pear-and-apple compote and sliver of brie atop each scallop are distracting.
The desserts, except for the Prigel ice cream — vanilla, chocolate, black cherry and cinnamon — are familiar items like creme brulee, carrot cake and a chocolate "passion" cake. The carrot cake was the good kind, dense and slabbed thick with cream-cheese frosting and, if you've ever had Prigel ice cream, you'll know what a treat you're in for.
The diners here have had the Manor Tavern to themselves for a long time. We got some looks when we walked in — not very polite ones, either. Fortunately, the Manor Tavern staff is nicer, making city slickers feel like landed gentry.
If new Manor Tavern cuisine is still forming a solid identity, the new guard at the Manor Tavern is making the right changes at the right time. Looking forward, the kitchen will be rolling out its first spring menu soon. The air is sweet up in Monkton.
Where: 15819 Old York Road, Monkton
Contact: 410-771-8155, themanortavern.com
Hours: Lunch on weekdays, brunch and weekends and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$12; entrees, $14-$32
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭