Urban renewal yields tasteful results at Clyde's of Columbia

Old-timers will remember that the dining area in Clyde’s that’s closest to the Tomato Palace used to be dubbed the Omelet Room.  Of course, that’s when “Clyde’s: An American Bar” (as it was called) opened in the mid-’70s. Not much had changed in the decades following. The seasonal outdoor dining area was added, as was the wooden pavilion, which houses a table and wet bar in high summer.

The menu changed over the years, of course. Omelets made way for white chicken chili, for instance. And the spinach salad with hot bacon dressing was a huge hit. Still, Clyde’s has always been noted for its traditional Maryland pub fare, specifically, burgers and crab cakes. (You’ll still find those standards on the 2013 menu.) But today’s diners, with arguably more educated palates, want trendy foods in the urbane setting that is Clyde’s.

Since its April reopening after a 13-week, $5 million renovation, we have the near-perfect combination of both. Oh, the “library” rooms and the bar area are the same, which makes traditionalists happy. But the main dining room is six feet wider and 40 seats larger, allowing for small tables at the huge windows and spacious booths, both of which afford views of Lake Kittamaqundi, along with the trademark art deco posters that enliven the decor.

The additional six feet seemed to help somewhat with the noise level, too, until someone decided to crank up some background music. Then we had to revert to raising our voices, which was OK except everyone else was doing it, too.    

While it was tempting to eat outdoors during a recent visit, the air conditioning beckoned. Seated at one of those nifty, spacious new booths, the four of us had plenty of elbow room. It was a busy night, but there was plenty of staff on duty and servers were youthful, friendly and knowledgeable. Only one glitch, really. The (barely warm) cream of crab soup didn’t arrive until just before the entrees were served.

One of the things we most admire about the Clyde’s kitchen is its creative executive chef, Jason McIntosh, whose mission includes changing his menu at least twice a week, and sometime even daily during summer, when local produce is available.

Of course, some old standards remain, so you can get a “classic” if you’ve a mind, but you can also eat here a couple of times a week and try something new each time.

The menu is fairly broad, and prices are urban-reasonable, especially when you consider  McIntosh and his culinary crew of 10 generally provide different side dishes and tasty garnishes for each appetizer, sandwich and entree.

Maryland cream of crab soup ($6.50/bowl), Clyde’s chili ($5.60/cup, with the addition of Cheddar cheese and onions), and Thai-style steak spring rolls ($8.95) served as appetizers. The soup had that rosy glow more associated with a bisque, but boasted plenty of crab and the pleasant background flavor of straight sherry. The (tomato-based) chili was meaty, beany and mild. Classic.

A trio of transparent, chewy rice paper rolls were plump with finely shredded tender beef strips, along with carrots, bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. Nicely melded flavors and textures here. Set on a watercress bed, the rolls were garnished with scallion sticks and served with a just-spicy-enough chili dipping sauce. 

One of our entrees was indeed retro. Pan-seared calves liver ($14.95). Really! (But with an upscale treatment.) The dish featured two large, thick perfectly cooked pieces of liver, tender and with that silky-grainy texture you either love or hate. Bacon accompanied, along with a side of scallion-studded mashed potatoes. And the “upscale?” A smooth, slightly boozy sherry wine sauce.

Also pan-seared were the Cape Cod day boat scallops ($18.95). The five good-sized scallops were sweet and tender-chewy, with a sprinkle of country ham. Some melt-in-your-mouth “dumplings” (tubes of earthy shiitake mushrooms and bread with a puddinglike texture) were also served on a bed of julienne asparagus and sauteed sweet onions. A creative combo, indeed.

From the menu’s sandwich section, we tried the lobster roll -- Maine lobster chunks with some celery and just a bit of mayo piled into a pair of toasted slider-size potato rolls. This was served with a bit of fruit salad (or you could have fries or cucumber salad) on the side and a big dill pickle spear  ($18.95).

Our fourth entree -- a Clyde’s tradition -- was the crab cake ($16.95/single). Just lump crab with a bit of binder, the cake was certainly big enough and quite sweet. And, of course, another Clyde’s tradition: a few shells. The crab cake was accompanied by a shaved asparagus salad and housemade Old Bay fries, plus a little crock of creamy-tangy citrus aioli for spreading or dunking.

Portions at Clyde’s are adequate for most eaters. In other words, you may be full enough to eschew dessert (as we were), but there were no doggie bags taken home that night.

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