When I was a lad, no one headed to a mall for fine dining or rhapsodized about eating at a hotel. Sure is a different story now.
You can find a particularly persuasive example of what I mean at Hunt Valley Towne Centre. Behind that precious spelling is just another sprawling outdoor complex of stores, cinemas and eating places that could be in Anywhere, U.S.A.
But there’s something out of the ordinary tucked into a corner of the upper deck — Barrett’s Grill, which takes a straightforward, contemporary American menu and gives it a conscientious, imaginative treatment. You feel as if the kitchen really cares.
The atmosphere inside the restaurant would gain considerably from less assertive lighting. When you’re savoring a good meal, you don’t want to be in a glare more suited to a food court. That was doubly apparent the night we were there; the live music from a stylish, well-matched trio playing a smart repertoire called out for a subtly lit, nightclubby ambience.
Even before sampling the food, we were in a good mood just from encountering a thoroughly professional, down-to-earth server. He proved fully informed about the food and the wine — his recommendation of a Joseph Carr cabernet paid off all the more so since it was a Tuesday, which happened to be half-price night for bottles of wine. Speaking of drinks, the bar whipped up a very suave martini and quite a muscular old fashioned.
To start off a meal here, a sure bet is the crab and roasted corn soup, one of several menu items that will be familiar to patrons of Barrett’s sister restaurant, Glyndon Grill, which I’ve long admired for its consistency and amiability. The soup achieves a supple fusion of the two main ingredients in a creamy base that manages to be rich without going overboard.
In the shrimp “cargot” — an escargot-style casserole, served with sliced baguette — the havarti was laid on a little too thick, but the combination of that gooey cheese and garlic herb butter deftly fit the seafood stars of the dish.
I was even more impressed with sizable, tender bacon-wrapped scallops that seemed all the happier surrounded by beautifully sauteed spinach and diced tomatoes, finished off with a tangy citrus beurre blanc.
A steak filet, listed as a Barrett’s house specialty, could have used more pizzazz in the flavor and the grilling, but fulfilled its mission ably. And the side we picked, shaved Brussels sprouts, was one of the tastiest treatments of that vegetable I’ve come across in ages — light, crisp, densely nutty taste.
Another notable side item was the au gratin potatoes, which looked more like a slice of elegant pastry but proved to be a luscious version of the classic dish.
Burgers and sandwiches are part of the dinner options. If the lobster roll’s meat didn’t exactly hit any peaks, the herb mayo it was dressed in provided a nice lift. And the split-top roll was grilled to perfection (funny how such a seemingly small thing can yield such great pleasure). There were first-rate fries, too.
Rightly hogging all the attention at the table was a dish of boneless braised short ribs. These feathery textured ribs practically melted in the mouth, something I’ve never experienced before — that was cool — and a Mongolian barbecue sauce added a robust infusion.
Desserts are clearly not an afterthought at Barrett’s. The fresh berry Napoleon was a thing of beauty — strawberries and tuile layered with a decadent pudding-like cream to create a lovely balance.
And then there was the carrot cake, a real charmer nothing like the usual version. The warm, dense cake of carrots, walnuts and pineapple exuded an intense personality, enlivened further by very subtly applied cream cheese icing and a topping of toasted coconut.
Heading outside after that meal, even the nondescript suburban parking lot started to look more interesting.