There’s a time warp in Columbia. You enter it when you turn off a bland suburban street and start up the drive that leads through sweeping lawns to the Kings Contrivance Restaurant, housed in a handsome Federalist-style mansion flanked by grand old trees.
The structure isn’t quite as old as it looks, dating only to around 1900, when the original 18th-century house was rebuilt after a fire. But that’s still pretty historic, and there are enough period details inside to make you feel you’ve turned back the clock. Even the way the place is run is retro — Kings Contrivance still relies on reservations made by phone. Talk about a throwback.
That’s not to say the restaurant, in business since 1962, feels stuffy or dated, just that it emits a distinct and rather appealing sense of long-ago-and-far-away values. Those values define the kitchen, where executive chef Sugunya Lunz scrupulously prepares a New American/Continental menu rich in flavors and combinations, tempered by subtlety and nuance.
Ensconced in the airy, cream-and-white-colored side room, with its views of the grounds and the large tent used for private events, we found much to savor in each course. Even before the first course, actually. A wonderful rustic bread provided good company for muscular, expertly blended cocktails.
There’s no surprise in encountering such a traditional favorite as jumbo shrimp cocktail offered in a vintage place. But it was nice to see a variation on the presentation — the truly hefty, tasty shrimp were arrayed elegantly on a plate, rather than clinging to the usual icy container.
And we sure weren’t expecting the additional touch of providing an accompaniment of Louie sauce, a vintage, up-market relative to Thousand Island dressing that doesn’t turn up every day. (The more standard cocktail sauce is also provided.)
Another starry appetizer was a Cajun-spiced seafood crepe packed with shrimp, crayfish and crab in a lobster sauce. Also finding favor was a salad made of Boston lettuce, roasted beets, figs and goat cheese, finished off with a subtly tangy citrus vinaigrette.
Veal Margarita balanced tender meat and ingredients more associated with a classic pizza — sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, oregano — to make a satisfying entree. Sharing the plate were fine green beans and carrots, along with an irresistible risotto croquette.
Two pan-seared items left an even bigger impression. There was an Old World elegance to the flaky lemon sole, its simple and beautiful flavor complemented by capers and vegetables provencale.
And, cooked perfectly to medium, the massive, double-cut pork chop offered abundant flavor, nicely backed up by a maple-apple-ginger sauce. There was room on the plate, too, for excellent sweet potato fries and a dollop of divine sauteed kale with smoked bacon that tasted at once down-home and uptown.
There was no letup in enjoyment at dessert time. The English trifle tickled my Anglophile fancy, revealing an appreciation for the vintage recipe of sherry-soaked cake, fruit (in this case, strawberries and raspberry preserves), nuts and whipped cream.
A bit of alcohol figured in another item, not that we could taste it. But the “drunken sundae” — a reference to a bourbon chocolate-caramel sauce — was a sure-footed version of an old standby. And key lime pie was the real deal in color, taste and texture; coconut ice cream was a welcome touch on the side.
Note, too, the sophisticated wine list, a model of variety in types, vintages, origins and, especially, prices. We found a sturdy petite sirah for $40 that went smoothly with everything (we happily disregarded that only-white-with-fish dictum years ago).
Not everything clicked. Service was sometimes short on the timing and communication skills common to top-drawer establishments, though more finesse and personality emerged as the meal progressed.
And, as nice as it was to while away the hours as the setting sun’s pastel colors spread over the grounds outside, I kept thinking how the inside would impress so much more with a few upgrades — vivid, distinctive pieces of art on the walls, for example, rather than the undistinguished items hanging now.
But at evening’s end, qualms mattered less than the afterglow of an artful dinner.
King’s Contrivance Restaurant
Rating: Four stars
Where: 10150 Shaker Drive, Columbia
Hours: 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Appetizers $6 to $20, entrees $15 to $42
Noise/TVs: Subdued conversation; no sign of TVs.
Service: Experienced, but room for fine-tuning.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]