We’ve gotten used to discovering charming, individually owned dining rooms in strip centers. So it was kind of fun to visit Drover’s Grill & Maryland Wine Co., in Mount Airy in western Howard County. It stands alone, resembling a rancher with an outdoor dining patio.
Inside the eatery are a bar and a charming 44-seat dining room. It’s the sort of room that comforts yet makes you feel somewhat special, a little bit of Provence in a very-much-Free State restaurant.
In the center of the room is a display of Maryland wine — the only kind Drover’s provides (from about 30 vineyards). Your server (in our case, Jennifer Stengel) will provide samples of the wines being featured that day, and she’ll tell you about them. We learned more about Maryland reds that evening than we ever knew. Then you can select the one you liked best to have with your dinner. Our party selected a merlot from Dove Valley and an artisanal red from Deep Creek.
Seasonal and local
While Drover’s is a smallish place, big flavor comes from the kitchen, thanks to executive chef-owner Kevan Vanek and his wife, Noelle, who opened the restaurant in November 2010. The staff of a dozen full- and part-timers includes Vanek’s longtime friend John Stutts, who serves as food and beverage manager.
The handwritten menu is printed on heavy white stock and features both the owners’ culinary philosophies, as well as a listing of some of the local food providers. Whether you opt for pub fare like Black Angus sliders or bacon-wrapped meatloaf, or something a bit more upscale, like artichoke and crab fondue or Drover’s seafood platter, you’ll be treated to food that benefits from the use of local products (many of them organic), attention to detail and a creatively deft hand in the kitchen.
For instance: Gratis bread — warm, fragrant, with housemade strawberry butter.
A starter of six cornmeal fried oysters ($9) were golden and crunchy outside, juicy and sweet inside. An artisanal cheese plate ($12) featured a quartet of Maryland goat cheeses, ranging from hard to soft, served with crunchy rusks for spreading it on, strawberry jam, sliced strawberries, plus assorted olives to add color and texture to the whole.
The main attraction
Our main courses separated the men from the women, with the guys opting for red meat and the gals for seafood.
The bacon-wrapped “Wood Camp Farms” Meatloaf ($17) featured a large 3-inch-high round of tender, moist, dense, flavorful, comforting meatloaf wrapped with thin, crisp bacon strips. Commendable by itself, the dish was made even more homey with mashed red-skin potatoes and sweet, crisp-tender carrots.
Of course, there’s not a lot you can do (or should do) to fancy up a filet mignon ($23/6-ounce), except make sure it’s from the most tender Black Angus beef, then grill it to perfection. In this case, it was done beyond the medium-rare requested but was very tender nonetheless. It came with those great mashed potatoes and a side of seasonal, local hearty creamed veggies like kale and bok choy.
Shrimp scampi ($19) featured five jumbo shrimp set over perfect al dente noodles in a garlicky, spicy white au jus, made even more interesting with a dollop of pesto.
Our fourth guest chose Kevan’s Seafood Pot o’ Wellness ($21). Think cioppino, with scallops, shrimp, salmon, tomato and garlic swimming atop a bed of linguine. The broth was a mite spicy — yet more delicate than in your traditional cioppino — and it bespoke a from-scratch seafood base and a careful hand with the herbs. It was so yummy that out diner didn’t want to eat it all at once but to save some to take home. (Which she did and which was every bit as delicious the next day. And she didn’t share.)