At Ellicott City's Mad Chef Kitchen, little things add up to an enjoyable meal

The Baltimore Sun

The only thing that might make you mad while dining at Mad Chef Kitchen & Bar is getting full before you can explore all the items on the vibrant menu that catch your eye.

A recent arrival at Turf Valley Towne Square, Mad Chef has a sister restaurant, Grille 620, across the street, and another, River Hill Grill, in Clarksville. The look of Mad Chef is understated, rustic-chic (I loved all the fancy chandeliers placed inside wire cages). The mood, judging by our memorable weeknight visit, is casual, comfortable and welcoming.

Even before tasting anything, I got a good feeling about the place, thanks to a simple courtesy.

Many’s the time, after encountering an empty host station at a restaurant, that I’ve been ignored by every staffer who passed by while I waited. Not at Mad Chef. A server on his way to tend to a table actually smiled and said, “Someone will be right with you” (and someone was).

As the old song goes, little things mean a lot.

And when I balked at initially being seated next to a kitchen passageway, we were quickly relocated to another table by very amiable staffers. Other niceties occurred throughout the evening, reinforcing our impression that management at Mad Chef takes customer relations seriously.

The kitchen certainly takes food seriously. Course by course, our happy little band encountered imaginative textures and flavors, along with stylish presentations. Long before the end of the meal, we talked about returning.

Having established the bar’s credibility with a muscular-strength (but skimpy in amount) martini and a well-structured, orange-y Manhattan, we dove into the small plates.

The Sardinian fonduta — an Italian take on fondue — oozed zesty character from melted provolone, orange honey and almonds (the crisp, rustic bread slices for dipping were treats in themselves). Beef empanadas hit high notes, lifted by a kicky salsa roja, caramelized onions and lime crema.

Stealing the show, appetizer-wise, were the Korean barbecue lamb ribs, vigorously spiced and so tender they were almost feathery.

Our main course included a seafood pot. This generously stocked stew of clam, lobster, mussel, scallop and shrimp boasted a vivid tomato-based sauce. Served with delectable grilled bread, this dish would be even more fun in dark, cold midwinter.

The veal entree, arrayed on a large wooden plate, was expertly prepared schnitzel-style, the breading light and airy, the meat fork-tender. An elegant salad of mozzarella, compari tomatoes and arugula provided fine balance.

A list of sandwich fare (dubbed “handhelds”) contained something we found terribly tempting, even as visions of bad cholesterol cavorted in our heads. The “fifty-fifty burger” is a house-made blend of beef and bacon, fortified with provolone, arugula and bourbon-infused onion jam. It tasted of pure decadence, and we couldn’t get enough of it.

The kitchen’s standard version of fries comes seasoned with Old Bay and malt vinegar, but, figuring the burger would deliver plenty of flavor on its own, we subbed in plain fries and found them spot-on.

Only in the name of duty could I face dessert, but it proved all too easy to dig into a basket of zeppole, a fried delight somewhat like doughnut holes. The puffs arrived wonderfully hot, subtly dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and supported on the side by a thick, luscious spread of Nutella.

Making the evening all the more enjoyable was our stellar server, as informative as she was engaging. We were impressed by how smoothly the likewise charming back waiter fulfilled his duties, too — one more example of how little things mean a lot.

Mad Chef Kitchen & Bar

4 stars

11085 Resort Road, #404, Ellicott City (in Turf Valley Towne Square)

410-203-0327, madchefkitchen.com

Cuisine: New American

Prices: Appetizers $8 to $13; sandwiches/burgers $14 to $15; entrees $22 to $36

Ambiance: There’s a lively buzz in rustic-chic rooms with flattering lighting.

Service: Down-to-earth, helpful and friendly.

Reservations: Accepted

Parking: Curbside spaces and shopping center lot.

Special diets: They can be accommodated.

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

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