I always marvel at the picturesque horse country of northern Baltimore County, with its lazy roads, manor homes and lush acres. But the pastoral journey to Manor Tavern in Monkton has gotten even better.
Executive chef George Batlas — a native Marylander who honed his skills in France — came onboard in 2015, turning the historic property into a must-visit food destination.
While the Manor Tavern has always been a go-to place for fun and special occasions, the food has wavered over the years. Not anymore.
Batlas and his staff use produce from the restaurant’s gardens and rely on meats and dairy products from nearby farms. And they have a chicken coop with laying hens, giving them a supply of fresh eggs for baked goods and other dishes.
The straightforward American menu delivers items you’d expect, like crab cakes, pork chops, racks of lamb and burgers. But there are surprises along the way, including elk Bolognese, an ahi tuna poke bowl, a hot duck skillet salad and a grilled cauliflower steak.
We sat in an old-fashioned room surrounded by horse prints and framed silks of jockeys. The thoughtful, prettily plated food seemed at odds with the stuffy equestrian decor that hasn’t changed much over the years.
I understand its historical significance. The 267-year-old property started as a stable that is said to have housed George Washington’s horse on occasion. Over the years, the original building was used as a blacksmith shop, a general store and a saloon. Today, it’s a genteel gathering spot in the heart of steeplechase land.
Still, we thought the theme was overdone. We didn’t dwell on it for long, though. We were distracted by thick slices of dense bread studded with raisins and walnuts from Stone Mill Bakery. Even nearby tables were commenting about how delicious it was.
We were at the restaurant on a Thursday, when bottles of wine are half price, and we didn’t have any problem choosing one from the mostly West Coast list. We were pleased with an Elouan pinot noir from Oregon.
Diners can also tap into several craft beers, including Maryland’s Raven Special Lager, and “canning-jar” cocktails like a Paloma with tequila and grapefruit juice.
Just when we thought we’d settled on our order, our conscientious waitress tempted us with the daily specials. We felt like toddlers being shown new toys — we wanted all of them.
We succumbed to the luscious figs stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in papery prosciutto. The fleshy fruit was nestled in feathery greens carefully glazed with balsamic vinegar.
We’re glad we stuck with the fried green tomato Oscar on the regular menu as a starter. Consider this for a main dish — it’s a whopping portion. Crunchy tomato slices, jumbo lump crabmeat and asparagus were a compelling combo. A Parmesan cracker perched on top was great for scooping up bits and pieces of the dish.
A roasted rainbow salad showcased produce from the garden, our server told us. The composition was beautiful. The captivating teepee of warm, roasted baby carrots over had a centerpiece of goat cheese and a smattering of sunflower seeds.
For entrees, you can dip into house specialties like a chicken piccata (perhaps a nod to Batlas’ earlier days at Baltimore’s Chiapparelli’s) or choose from lists of seafood, steak dishes, burgers and sandwiches.
You won’t go wrong with a country-fried pork chop featuring a 16-ounce slab of tender meat hiding inside a crispy Parmesan covering. It paired well with thick mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day, a green bean-squash medley.
Another good choice is the crab and spinach orzo with pan-seared scallops. The garlicky dish reveled in silky cream and Parmesan cheese.
Desserts are recited at the table, making you snap to attention at a time when you’d rather read a list than try to remember what was just said. They included creme brulee, cheesecake, an inches-high chocolate cake and bread pudding. The sweets are made in house by the restaurant’s longtime pasty chef, Carmalyn Crandall, with the exception of ice cream from nearby Prigel Family Creamery and Jarrettsville Creamery & Deli.
We picked a chocolate flourless molten “seduction” cake with cinnamon ice cream, which was as decadent and fulfilling as it sounded.
The sprawling restaurant includes two other dining rooms, a bar with booths, and front and side patios, where two gentlemen were enjoying cigars as we left the restaurant.
We peeked at the garden located near the parking lot, which was being prepared for winter. The country was quiet and dark.
But inside the restaurant, the lights were bright, and the food was exciting. Sometimes a destination is as meaningful as the journey.
The Manor Tavern
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 15819 Old York Road, Monkton
Contact: 410-771-8155, themanortavern.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $19-$38
Noise/TVs: You can hear conversations at nearby tables, but it isn't intrusive; six TVs.
Service: Our likeable waitress was a great guide to the menu and deftly handled her duties.
Parking: Parking lot
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]