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American classics in a quiet setting

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The name "University Club" conjures up images of old school chums sipping scotch by a roaring fire. At the University Club at Towson, the reality is somewhat different.

The Club is located in the Towson Marriott, just across from Towson University's campus. The restaurant's hotel location is important: It feels more like a capable hotel restaurant, albeit one with slow service, than a "club."

The location also makes finding the restaurant slightly complicated. Parking in the hotel's underground garage is easy, though there's no clear signage indicating how to find the restaurant. We took the elevator to the lobby, then followed a small sign down a hallway to what we thought was the correct door.

As it turns out, the door led to the small bar adjacent to the restaurant. Around 6:30 on a recent Friday night, a few tables in the bar were filled with friends meeting for after-work drinks, but there was no hostess or bartender to explain how to get a table.

After a few awkward minutes, we made our way through the bar to the actual restaurant entrance — a large doorway directly off the lobby. Another few minutes later, someone showed us to a table.

The University Club was renovated in December 2011; it still has that "brand new restaurant" feel. Earth tones and muted patterns give off a generic hotel vibe, but large windows provide a friendly view of Towson University's bridge over Burke Avenue.

During our visit, Towson was not in session, which may explain why the restaurant was so quiet. The University Club doesn't feel like a student hangout, but it's easy to imagine professors meeting for a drink or parents taking their Towson students out for dinner.

But as it was, we were the only diners in the restaurant side of the space — which makes it hard to figure out why the service was so slow.

After being seated, we waited a few minutes for our personable waiter then placed drink orders. Then we waited again, at least five minutes, for a glass of serviceable Graffigna Malbec ($7) and a tonic-heavy Tanqueray and tonic ($6.50).

The wait for our appetizers — a bowl of cream of crab soup ($8) and a skillet of sautéed garlic shrimp ($10) — felt never-ending, though things looked up about 10 minutes in, when our waiter delivered a small cone of warm corn muffins and breads.

Fortified by sweet corn muffin, the next 10 minutes didn't seem as daunting.

Fortunately, when the appetizers arrived, they were worth the wait. The soup was thick, well-seasoned and filled with chunks of crab.

The shrimp, sautéed until just cooked through, swam in a tomato-based sauce with a hint of acidity, just enough spice, and great garlicky flavor. We were thankful for the hunks of grilled bread served alongside the shrimp; we used them to sop up every bit of sauce.

We were also thankful that our entrees arrived only a minute or two after we finished the appetizers.

Billed as a house specialty, a pair of crab cakes ($26) was a good example of what Maryland has to offer. Towson parents visiting from out of state will enjoy the chunks of crab, nicely seasoned, and the kitchen's light hand with filler.

"Eastern shore" slaw was a creamy, if standard, side dish. Made with shaved Brussels sprouts, the slaw sounded intriguing, but as it turned out, it tasted just like regular coleslaw.

A hefty portion of sweet potato fries was nearly perfect — but not quite. The thick-cut fries had a nice thin crust and great sweet flavor. However, about half the batch was a touch underdone.

Grilled bison meatloaf ($19) was closer to an unqualified home run. The meatloaf, made with ground meat from Monkton's Gunpowder Bison, was moist and flavorful. Cut into slices then seared on a grill, adding lingering smokiness, the meatloaf was served with a spicy tomato-based barbecue sauce.

Served with smooth whipped potatoes and crunchy green beans, the meal hit the right spot between comforting and interesting.

Slow service reared its head again as we waited for dessert, but once it arrived, we thoroughly enjoyed the praline bread pudding ($8).

Our waiter claimed it reminded him of homemade bread pudding. Arriving as a long rectangle, heavily drizzled with caramel and dotted with whipped cream, it reminded us more of an oversized, sweet, carb-filled candy bar. Still, it was tasty.

But that sweet taste couldn't quite overshadow the sour one left by the University Club's slow service. Whether the problem was in the kitchen or with the wait staff we're not sure.

But we know this: next time we have a hankering for meatloaf, we'll be sure to block out at least two hours.

The University Club at Towson

Backstory: Located in the Towson University Marriott, The University Club at Towson underwent a major renovation a few years ago, reopening in December 2011 as a quiet hotel restaurant serving well-executed takes on local standards.

Parking: Garage below hotel

Signature dish: The grilled bison meatloaf, made with ground bison from Gunpowder Bison in Monkton, is a sophisticated and tasty take on the traditional comfort food. Sliced into triangles and seared on the grill, the meatloaf is juicy, savory and a touch smoky.

Where: 10 W. Burke Ave., Towson

Contact: 410-324-8100; http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/bwibu-towson-university-marriott-conference-hotel/

Open: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 11 p.m. (Bar menu only after 10 p.m.)

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Rating: * 1/2

Key: *****: Superlative; ****: Excellent; ***: Very Good; **: Good; *: Promising

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Colleges and UniversitiesRestaurantsDining and DrinkingTowson UniversityHotel and Accommodation Industry
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