The Oregon Grille, after 16 years, has achieved institutional status.
For residents of northern Baltimore County, especially those reluctant to drive into the city, the Oregon Grille is a retreat from the crowds and their flashy manners.
Gentlemen are still asked to wear jackets in the dining room — not just on weekends, but weeknights, too. We had a pleasantly paced and relaxing dinner in the main dining room, which is decorated extensively with equestrian kitsch and framed scenes of the hunt. A piano player lends the room a touch of class.
The flip-side of all this country-club civility is smugness, and the Oregon Grille has been known to present a cold shoulder to first-time diners. But I found the atmosphere has thawed a bit since my last visit a few years back. The bar, where the dress code is relaxed, is lively and merry. The service we had there and in the dining room was polite and personable.
Although the Oregon Grille is not a steakhouse, steaks are the pride of the house, and the prized steak on the menu is a boneless, dry-aged prime sirloin strip. Listed on the menu as market price, it ended up being $53. That's how much we were charged, too, for steak au poivre, which was prepared, we were told, from a similar cut of beef.
That's a lot of steak. And the third entree we ordered was an ahi tuna au poivre. I wish we had dug a little deeper into the Oregon Grille's menu. But none of the dozen or so other entrees, heavy-going fine-dining fare such as pan-fried rockfish, lobster cardinale and grilled loin of lamb, called out to us. And our waiter seemed to be tacitly advising us to stick with the steak.
I was most impressed with the steak au poivre. The Oregon Grille is one of the few restaurants to prepare it with an encrusting of black peppercorns instead of just covering a piece of steak with a brandy and peppercorn sauce. So big points for that — and for the overall handling of the steaks, which had the full-bodied flavor you associate with good marbling but with all of its fat trimmed away.
And the tuna was fine, too — generously portioned, robust and satisfying, with a liberal pepper crusting. It would be the ideal option for someone who wants steak but has been told to cut down on red meat.
But because the Oregon Grille is not, in essence, a steakhouse, your $53 steak doesn't come with the sizzle, or that little something extra a steakhouse provides that makes an evening feel special. And this would be OK, you reason, if everything else was perfect, or close to it.
But it's not. An appetizer of grilled oysters, served handsomely with a lemon beurre blanc, was a problem. We enjoyed the flavor, but the oysters hadn't been separated cleanly from their shell, and they tore when we tried to eat them.
The other appetizers were much better. The "paella" risotto cakes offered good pieces of buttery lobster and tender shrimp. A saffron-paprika aioli gave the cakes the sunny appearance and warm flavors of paella. The evening's outstanding effort was a crispy duck leg, garnished with slices of caramelized pears and cranberries, which yielded hunks of beautiful lean duck meat.
For every encouraging sign, such as the expertly suggested wine pairings, there's a discouraging one, like the a dull and dated dessert lineup — things like Key lime pie, New York-style cheesecake and "assorted fresh berries." We settled for a bland apple crisp and a flabby creme brulee.
The Oregon Grille seems to have settled for being a very good restaurant but not a great one. That is how it's loyal customers seem to prefer it.
One thing more: The maitre d' on duty when we visited was especially adroit at resolving a tricky issue that arose in the dining room. It had to do with diners at a nearby table who were using a lot of swear words in their conversation. We mentioned it to the maitre d', who asked them to stop, which they did. Eventually, they started up again, but more quietly.
I bring this up both because I was impressed with how the situation was handled and to make what is maybe an obvious point about dress codes. They don't guarantee civility.
The Oregon Grille
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley
Contact: 410-771-0505, theoregongrille.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$18; Entrees: $30-$44
Food: Dry-aged prime steaks, seafood, lamb and chicken
Service: Tentative but not obtrusive
Parking/accessibility: Lot parking on premises
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is very comfortable in main dining room. The separate bar has a television, which is set without volume.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]