An accessible upscale experience

You might find yourself sitting in your comfortable booth in the Stanford Grill's big, wide-open dining room saying things like, "You know what, these are really amazing ribs," or, "Actually, this steak is fantastic." All along, the food the Stanford Grill sends out is better than you anticipated, and the surprise factor has to do with how the restaurant sets expectations — not low, really, but as middle as middle can be.

I think this is all deliberate. The Stanford Grill, which opened in early May, is the first foray into the upscale casual market by the Howard County-based Blue Ridge Restaurant Group, which operates six Copper Canyon Grill restaurants in Maryland and Florida. With this new restaurant, which takes over a former Lone Star Steakhouse property, the guiding principle apparently is to keep an upscale experience affordable, familiar and accessible.

The interior strikes a careful balance between country-club formal and suburban casual. There are appealing visual highlights — an open kitchen, fireplaces, gleaming wood-fire rotisserie, a wall of windows that look out onto a dining patio. There is a liberal use, too, of wood, granite and leather. The combined effect is a little square. There might be a pianist or a jazz combo playing near the bar area, but you wouldn't feel out of place here in shorts and a T-shirt.

This balance carries through with the wine list, an affordable selection of American pinots, cabernets and sauvignon blancs, and the wait staff, which is young, consistently polite and dressed semiformally and reassuringly in white shirts and black vests. Greeting new diners, a server will tell you that Stanford Grill's food is fresh and local, that the kitchen specializes in grilling chicken and fish, and that the service operates with a "team" approach.

The menu is very straightforward, bordering on blunt. Without flowery descriptions or epic claims, it lists its eight featured entrees, and a handful or so each of starters, entree salads and sandwiches. If there's a word on the menu you don't recognize, you haven't been dining out much. Sometimes, as with the appetizers, there's no description at all.

Only when you order, or at least ask about, the mac & cheese appetizer will your server tell you that it's flavored with bacon. That's usually a selling point, or at least so I thought. Then it turned out to be an especially satisfying version of the restaurant staple, a gentle blending of elbow pasta with sharp cheese, free of cheap truffle effects. That's what got me thinking that Stanford Grill might be smarter than it looked.

Other starters are just as good. The house smoked salmon turns out to be a gorgeous hunk of precisely seasoned fish, flaky enough to pile onto toast rounds. Iron skillet cornbread, finished off to a golden brown, is better here than in some fancier places where it's a specialty — a little bit of sweetness helps. The only early disappointment is the Millionaire Shrimp, which seems to be a carryover recipe from the Copper Canyon Grills. The mustard-horseradish sauce is tasty but the flat presentation, which includes too much shredded lettuce, looks wrong.

The entree course is where the Stanford Grill shines, though. A rack of slow-cooked barbecued ribs is an outstanding achievement. The zesty sauce is applied evenly and neatly, as though by paintbrush, the ribs are meaty and full of good flavor. A perfectly handled tenderloin fillet, accompanied by a rich and smooth Chilean cabernet sauce, is finished with a simple but very effective gorgonzola butter. The plated sides here are creamily good red-skinned mashed potatoes and lusciously sauteed fresh spinach. (In another curious menu quirk, sides are listed with each menu item, even though diners are ultimately offered their own choice.)

The heavily touted rotisserie chicken is very good. A little less than succulent, it's seasoned and brined smartly and modestly, then chopped and presented in manageable pieces. We enjoyed it a little less than the other entrees, but we loved those. A chicken and avocado club sandwich had a few problems, including overdone bacon and on-the-verge avocado, but its fatal flaw was that it wasn't a club sandwich. Anyone who loves a classic club sandwich will know how much that stings.

A final course continues the balancing act. On one hand, coffee is served in a French press. On the other, desserts can tend toward crowd-pleasing contraptions that substitute goo and size for finesse for flavor — a pineapple upside-down cake served with ice cream and the "chocolate invasion."

If the Stanford Grill were an Oriole, it would be B.J. Surhoff, the kind of steady citizen who seldom shows up on highlight reels and who has to bodily forced out of the dugout to take a curtain call, but one who shows up every day prepared to work hard. Taciturn, sure, maybe even a little bland, but over the long haul, this is the one who ends up a fan favor. The Stanford Grill isn't out to send you reeling. Its goal is to give you an affordable version of an upscale steakhouse experience. It succeeds absolutely.

Stanford Grill

Where: 8900 Stanford Blvd., Columbia

Contact: 410-312-0445

Appetizers: $4-$12

Entrees: $16-$26

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner, 7 days a week

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

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

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