In his planning for Highland Inn, Brian Boston wanted to create a place that had the same solid attitudes about American cuisine as the Milton Inn, his long-running special-occasion restaurant in northern Baltimore County.
But Boston said he wanted Highland Inn, which is near Clarksville in southern Howard County, to be more accessible, the kind of place where folks would want to come once a week instead of just for anniversary dinners and graduation parties.
The good news is that Highland Inn, whose conversion from an 1890s farmhouse into a full-scale restaurant took longer than anyone expected, is a perfectly charming and satisfying dining destination.
Just don't go expecting burgers and wings. Highland Inn may be a casual option compared to the Milton Inn, but it still falls on the expensive side of area dining. Entree prices on the dining-room menu fall mainly in the upper $20s and lower $30s.
There is, though, a separate lounge menu, with a $12 hamburger and a $16 New York strip sandwich. The lounge, which is in between the entrance and the main-level dining room, is wide open and good looking. Early on a recent Saturday night, the lounge was at full capacity, as were the dining rooms. In addition to the main-level dining room, there is another, the Terrace Room, on the lower level. When the weather turns nice — and it will — Highland Inn will start outdoor dining service on a patio adjacent to the lower-level room.
Of the two, the upper dining room is the more formal, with white tablecloths, brightly patterned carpeting and a profusion of equestrian and sporting art by the Maryland artist Sam Robinson. Most prominent are wall-size murals on either end of the long room, which give this months-old restaurant a polished look. Highland Inn is ready for company.
Boston has installed Mark Davis, recently of Ten Ten American Bistro, as Highland Inn's executive chef, and his opening menu is a good balance of the familiar and the inventive. Most of the culinary playfulness comes where you'd expect it, in the appetizers, with things like duck spring rolls, toasted butternut gnocchi, and a bona fide knockout, the Crispy Pork Belly PB&J.; The entrees are for the most part conservative offerings like pan-seared sea scallops, rack of lamb and dry-aged pork chops.
Credit Davis and his kitchen for giving equal attention to everything. There are solid skills on the display here. A petite filet is seasoned confidently and cooked perfectly to temperature. The salmon beneath delicately crisped skin is firm and moist. Most impressively, a herb-brined chicken entree is surpassingly juicy and full of flavor. Lately, we've been using roasted chicken as a barometer of sorts — if a kitchen can send out a good chicken entree, it can do anything.
We noted, too, the care and concern taken with the vegetables and legumes that Davis plated with his entrees — in winter, he's serving the chicken with tender maple-braised kale and a hash of parsnips and Brussels sprouts. With the salmon comes an aromatic ragout of littleneck clams, scallops, lentils, heirloom beans and a finishing touch of spinach-fennel cream.
Gnocchi is popping up on menus all over this year, and it's good to see Highland Inn not only keeping up with the times but doing it so well. Served with a hazelnut butter, fried sage and a herbed creme fraiche, Davis' gnocchi were little pillows of pleasure. And the silky pork belly, served with pistachio butter, spiced apple butter and a cider-sage jam, was just the thing to make new diners sit up and pay attention.
The service, early on a Saturday night, was a little jittery, but not in a way that concerned me. The staff will be fine as they gain some confidence at the table. Even now, they're great at filling water glasses and clearing empty plates. But be prepared for small misunderstandings, like when a cocktail is ordered that requires a type of spirit that Highland Inn's bar doesn't stock. If that's the type of thing that ruins your evening, you've been warned.
Highland Inn is off to a very good start. We can't say we're surprised — Boston is a complete pro, and we've enjoyed Davis' cooking elsewhere. But we're happy to tell you about it all the same.
Where: 12857 Highland Road, Highland
Contact: 443-276-3202, highlandinnrestaurant.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$21; entrees: $24-48
Food: A mix of traditional and contemporary American fare.
Service: Motivated and friendly, with a few ragged edges.
Parking/accessibility: Free parking on the restaurant's private lot.
Children: No printed children's menu, but servers will make recommendations.
Special diets: No printed menu, but servers will make recommendations.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant. Two televisions in the bar areas have the sound off and are not visible from the dining rooms.
[Star key: Superlative: 5 ; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]