The heart of Harryman House may be a 200-year-old log cabin, but there's very little that's old-fashioned about this Reisterstown restaurant, which over the years has become something of a fixture in the area. After recent renovations, "The Grill" was added to the Harryman House name, as if proprietor John Worthington were saying, "We know the kind of food people are eating these days, and we're adding it to our menu." The Harryman House is still a fine-dining restaurant, but that's not all it is.
I can't think of a restaurant that's more successful at being, if not all things to all people, at least many things to many people. The original dining room is still a good place for romantic dining, but there's also a lively bar, shut away from the rest of the restaurant (smart move), porches and a more casual dining room - part of the latest remodeling - where we sat.
This room has a soaring beamed ceiling, planked flooring, lots of glass and fresh-looking celery-green walls hung with black-and-white photographs. A wine rack adorns one wall - decorative, but the room was snuggy warm when we ate there, and I'm not sure it's the best place to store wine.
A fireplace makes the room cozy this time of year; but the flat-screen TV hung above it with a slide show of, I guess, wine country is odd. It morphs back into a TV during important events like the Super Bowl. This is a very pleasant room; but if you're seated next to a large, happy party, as we were (for the second review in a row!) I suggest you ask to be moved to another dining room. Nothing mutes the noise. At first we couldn't hear ourselves talk, but, luckily, the party was almost finished when we arrived.
One of the biggest changes since I last ate at the Harryman House in the mid-'90s is that the restaurant now has a brick pizza oven. Pizzas are a significant part of the menu, and Thursdays are pizza night, when you can get $3 off a pizza and 25 percent off wines the restaurant has deemed go well with pizza.
The specials included a vegetable pizza made with herbed ricotta cheese and mozzarella. It needed more vegetables; the artichoke hearts, broccoli florets and chopped tomato were arranged on top as though they were simply a minor decorative element. I wouldn't have minded if the crust had been crisper, too.
An artichoke made a more successful appearance as an appetizer. Split in half, it was grilled so it had a wonderful smoky flavor, and a lemony aioli makes an even better dipping sauce than the traditional hollandaise or mayonnaise. I could have, however, done with less of the olive oil that drenched it.
For sheer decadence in an appetizer, it would be hard to beat the wild mushroom fricassee with finely chopped bacon, lots of cream and a jaunty sprig of rosemary. It's cradled in a puff pastry shell.
There are more traditional appetizers, like clams baked with a curl of bacon, garlicky butter and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. The topping was superb, but the dish would have been even better if the clams themselves hadn't been a bit chewy.
Order the raw oysters, icy-fresh, and you'll find nothing to complain about. The selection varies, but it might include Moonstones, large and sweet, Island Creeks (salty) or Pebble Beach oysters, briny and meaty. With them come a fresh-tasting cocktail sauce and a tart mignonette sauce.
Seafood was the most successful part of our meal, both casual and more formal. The more formal entree was a rockfish fillet, pan-fried with a parmesan crust so delicate that it could hardly be called a crust at all. The sauce was delicate as well: If this had been a salad, I would have called the sauce a vinaigrette. Also it was nice to see vegetables treated with respect, in this case, fresh spinach and fennel sauteed together.
Among the entree sandwiches, there's a fine salmon burger, served with thinly sliced cucumbers and aioli (doesn't that sound grander than mayonnaise?) on a kaiser roll. The seasonings of soy sauce, chili and green onions give the fish a decidedly Asian flair. Unless you adore a lot of raw onion, substitute something else for the vegetable slaw. The onion gave it a bitter edge.
You could describe the Grill at Harryman House's menu as bistro-style, so I wasn't surprised to find steak frites on it. In this case, the frites outshine the steak. The kitchen tosses thin, crisp fries with gremolata, the minced garlic, chopped parsley and lemon zest that you usually find on osso buco. I almost forgot to mention the steak, slices of a currently trendy cut, teres major, cooked medium rare. Not the juiciest cut, but flavorful enough.
Even if you think you've overdosed on creme brulee, when dessert time rolls around, try the creme brulee sampler, three mini desserts. There's the classic vanilla custard with a burnt sugar crust, one with a crushed peppermint topping and one with chocolate chips.
The dessert menu is long and tempting, but the toll house pie with ice cream wasn't the best version of this rich dessert I've had (maybe it could have been fresher?) and the butterscotch pudding with Scotch, as in the whisky, was gummy. (Maybe it had been cooked too long?)
Still, there are more things to like about the Harryman House than not. You don't have to ask for bread. Fresh, hot rolls are delivered to your table. The after-dinner coffee was fresh, smooth and superb. The server had too many tables, but she stayed cheerful and did remarkably well considering.
The international wine list is long, with 25 wines by the glass and more than 175 bottles. There are choices for both the connoisseur and the value-minded.
I appreciate the way the Grill at Harryman House has reinvented itself, in spite of the weight of its history. Management recognizes that times are changing, and there's a neat balancing act of bringing in the new without throwing out the old. With a little more consistency in the food department, this could be a neighborhood restaurant that would draw a downtown Baltimore crowd.
the grill at harryman house
Address: 340 Main St., Reisterstown
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; brunch and dinner Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$14; entrees, $12-$34
Food: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]