The staff is happy that chef Chad Wells has taken over the direction of Victoria Gastro Pub's kitchen. On a recent visit, our waiter assured us that we could expect a new experience.
The Columbia restaurant's menu has definitely been energized by Wells, who started there in July after leaving Alewife in Baltimore. His commitment to local watermen, farmers and products is evident.
Squash blossoms and heirloom tomatoes from the Ellicott City farm of the Mariner family, who opened Victoria Gastro Pub in 2008, are just some examples.
"It's really cool as a chef to have access to that," Wells said.
The chef is also a proponent of game meats, adding a well-received wild boar grilled cheese sandwich to the pub's menu.
But longtime diners can relax. Favorite dishes like duck-fat fries and fish and chips remain. And the space is still reminiscent of a cheery English pub with carved wood, wrought iron and tin ceilings — though it looks like a typical suburban restaurant from the outside.
Victoria Gastro Pub seats about 160 diners, with room for an additional 60 on the patio. But it's not an overwhelming cavern. A nest of small dining rooms with names like Seven Sisters, Oxford Circus and Black Forest Road creates a chummy setting.
We were tucked into one of the rooms that had its own bar and sliding doors to create a bigger expanse if needed. The pub promotes an array of beers, including its own Manor Hill brews, but it includes a nice selection of wines and cocktails on its drinks menu.
While we consulted the regular menu for our meal, we relied on the daily specials for inspiration on what to order. Wells later told us he is testing various dishes to see what diners like.
The brisket chili was one of the specials on our visit. It was a hearty bowl of tender meat steeped in a rich tomato base and showered with grated cheese. We hope it makes it to the permanent menu.
From the ongoing dishes, we continued our meal with a smoked chicken-liver-and-bourbon pate paired with a complementary apricot chutney. The plate was visually appealing with challah toast cut into rectangles and stacked like a tidy woodpile.
The chorizo sausage- and blue cheese-stuffed mushrooms were another treat (and a bargain at $5). The mouth-size, meaty fungi were suitable receptacles for the spicy meat and piquant cheese.
We had mixed feelings about the grilled octopus salad. The plump tentacles tucked into the frisee greens varied in tenderness. Some pieces melted in your mouth like soft butter; others were a chore to chew. And instead of supporting the salad, the pepperoncini vinaigrette overpowered the seafood with too much garlic.
We received three appetizers in quick succession, but we had to wait for Mary's crispy stuffed squash blossoms, named after one of the owners, Mary Mariner. We asked the staff about them a couple of times before they arrived at the table, hot and delicious.
The delicate blossoms, pregnant with herb goat cheese, were lightly battered and fried. Dots of basil vinaigrette added an earthy nuance.
We had no doubt that the Southern-style burger on the specials list was the work of Wells. (I remember his impressive smoke burger, complete with a steak knife jutting into the bun, at Alewife.) This time, the chef adorns a bulging beef patty with barbecue pulled pork, chipotle slaw, house pimento cheese and house pickles for a happy party in your mouth.
The mound comes with a limited choice of side dishes, which our waiter didn't point out. We picked the poutine duck-fat fries as a side for an unexpected extra $7. The gloppy fries weren't worth the additional fee.
Besides that slip, our agreeable server was well schooled in the food and in his service.
We also enjoyed another tryout dish, a flavorful rib-eye steak from Catonsville butcher J.W. Treuth & Sons. The generous slab of beef benefited from its capable accessories — smoky mashed potatoes, a wild-mushroom ragout and roasted carrots.
Wells, an avid and environmentally conscious fisherman, made sure to add a sustainably raised rockfish to the regular menu. The impressive pan-seared fillet was bolstered by a cherry tomato-and-cauliflower relish, pea puree and charred tomato sauce.
The housemade desserts capped off a fine meal. Even if you're not a cheesecake lover, Victoria Gastro Pub's version will have you reconsidering. The honey goat-cheese filling was layered in a Mason jar atop a crumbly crust with a rum-and-cherry compote. We didn't leave a crumb.
Our other desserts were just as successful. The chocolate praline cake was a decadent creation with a square of pecan-crusted chocolate cake enrobed in dark chocolate icing and capped with whipped cream.
Local Taharka Brothers ice cream makes a welcome appearance, either as individual scoops or in a sweet sandwich resembling a whoopie pie. Soft shortcake cookies embrace Key lime pie ice cream and are framed by strawberries and blueberries.
Wells's work has only begun. He will be handling kitchen duties at the Mariner family's new restaurants — Manor Hill Tavern in Ellicott City, scheduled to open soon, and Food Plenty, which is still being built in Clarksville and is expected to be ready next year.
"We want to keep it exciting for our guests," Wells said.
The chef has already stirred up culinary excitement at Victoria Gastro Pub. We're looking forward to his continued input with the Victoria Restaurant Group.