At age 27, chef Thomas Zippelli brings some impressive cooking chops to Maryland. The Howard County native spent the last several years working at Eleven Madison Park in New York and The French Laundry in California, both Michelin three-star restaurants.
But Zippelli was ready to branch out on his own. And what better place than his home state?
When a restaurant deal in Hampden fell through, a real estate agent suggested Coho Grill in Columbia. Zippelli wasn't crazy about the idea at first, remembering the restaurant as an old, stodgy building at Hobbit's Glen Golf Course.
Then he drove by the remodeled clubhouse and "loved it," he said. By July 1, he was the owner and executive chef.
By October, he had rechristened the restaurant The Turn House, referring to a golf term that means you've finished the first nine holes and are ready to start the second nine. But he said the name is subtle enough to stand on its own.
On my first visit in August, not much had changed physically in the dining room, a sterile space that seemed more suited to a corporate setting than a platform for Zippelli's delicious New American cuisine.
But the days were longer then, and we enjoyed views of the greens and golfers as well as dishes like shishito peppers with lemon aioli, pan-roasted pork belly with white beans and rockfish with grilled corn.
Zippelli was aware that the restaurant's rooms — a separate bar, main dining area and private event space — needed sprucing up, and a remodeling ensued with fresh paint, carpeting, reupholstered banquettes and artwork.
"It felt institutional," he said. "I wanted to make it homier."
The taupe color scheme and three-dimensional green wall hangings help soften the dining room, but it still has a utilitarian feel, with bare tables and functional chairs. On a cool fall night, flames in the fireplace brought warmth.
The menu changes monthly, with weekly substitutions made when Zippelli finds interesting produce like the acorn squash he acquired at a nearby farm. He roasted his bounty and then combined the vegetable with roasted apples, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, lentils, walnuts and ricotta for a recent entree.
"I like to challenge my chefs," Zippelli said. "Too often, you have talented chefs who get bored doing the same thing over and over again."
It's too bad our service didn't live up to the caliber of the food. Our waiter was polite, but he wasn't helpful with the menu offerings and brought our check before we had even taken the first bite of our dessert.
He waited until we ordered our appetizers before telling us the kitchen was out of the prosciutto toast with fish-pepper jam we were craving. We then chose the crab dip and were pleased with the creamy mix, rich with crustacean flavor, that came with salty chips and pretzel knots.
Another starter, sweet potato soup, was amazing. Smoked jalapeno cream emboldened the thick broth that was dotted with hazelnuts and gilded with a fried sage leaf.
The restaurant is on point with its cocktails, serving drinks like a Baltimore Negroni with Shot Tower Gin and a s'more martini with vanilla vodka, cream, a drizzle of chocolate and a graham cracker.
Local beers are available, and bottles of wines are reasonably priced, with a selection offered for half-price on Thursdays. By the glass, they are pricier, ranging from $9 to $16.
When we first saw our seared scallops entree, we thought it looked sparse. But it wasn't. Like a trompe-l'oeil piece of art, the plating obscured the clever arrangement of the scallops, paired masterfully with crisp nuggets of pork belly, roasted Brussels sprouts, barley and toasted pecans.
Our hunk of heritage boneless pork chop was a rustic, substantial dish with grilled cabbage, cauliflower, fennel salad and mustard jus. It was a welcome salute to fall weather.
Desserts created by pasty chef Jessica Banner get equal billing here. A homey apple crisp presented in a cast-iron skillet was embellished with cardamom ice cream and whiskey caramel for a convergence of tastes.
A pumpkin spice cake was a pleasant nod to the season. Shaped like a mini loaf, it was even better with two pillowy toasted swirls of marshmallow and maple pecan ice cream.
Zippelli could have chosen to open a restaurant anywhere. We're glad he headed back home. He's scored a hole-in-one.