After almost five years, Towson Tavern is getting even better. It has a talented new chef and is in the midst of an expansion that will add 85 seats to the sophisticated bistro, which offers an alternative to the college town's proliferation of sushi and burger joints.
While the restaurant has all the markings of a contemporary dining space, it embraces the history of Towson with old-time black-and-white photos on the walls and quaint memorabilia like movie reels from the now-closed Towson Theatre.
It also is named in honor of a Colonial precursor — a gathering spot for traveling farmers — that was operated by Ezekiel Towson in the 1760s.
The early diners feasted on simpler fare than that of today's Towson Tavern. But they would recognize the local, seasonal ingredients that executive chef Josh Vecchiolla, formerly of Parts & Labor in Remington, uses in his dishes.
You'll find produce like pumpkin, apples, squash, turnips and more on the tightly scripted fall menu that changes often to reflect the chef's market finds.
"There's a lot more he wants to do," said the restaurant's general manager, Michael Velleggia. "He's sourcing more local farms now."
For instance, Vecchiolla uses beef from Roseda Farm in Monkton for dishes like a 10-ounce top sirloin with spinach gratin, and pork from Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pa., for his pork loin with sweet potato and apple hash.
The chef has also joined the brining craze, presenting a snack of mixed pickled vegetables in vibrant hues of pinks, oranges and greens. Radishes, carrots and more are transformed into piquant bursts of flavor to stimulate your appetite.
The restaurant is divided by a half-wall into a bar with red-brick walls and a table area. You can take your meal at the granite bar, where craft cocktails, several wines by the glass and bottle, and local beers like Heavy Seas and Resurrection are served.
Or head to the dining room, as we did, with its burgundy walls and banquettes upholstered in gold and spaced for privacy. An additional dining area, which will double the restaurant's seating capacity, is under construction and is expected to be ready in January.
In addition to the pickles to start, we enjoyed a ceviche. It was cleverly served in a glass jar, allowing us to dig deep for luscious cubes of scallops and shrimp in a citrus marinade.
The grilled-chicken flatbread could serve as a main meal instead of an appetizer. We really liked the smear of hot-pepper aioli on the crisp crust scattered with tender poultry chunks, Gouda, tomatoes and spinach.
The Maryland crab soup just missed the mark of being perfect. The Old Bay-enhanced broth was dotted with lots of crab, tomatoes, corn and carrots but had been doused once too often with a saltshaker for our palates.
We were impressed with our entrees, each one showcasing its own charms. The beef short rib benefited from a 48-hour sous-vide treatment, which left the meat moist and succulent.
The supple hunk of meat was settled on a puddle of nutty-tasting sunchoke puree and straddled braised baby carrots with leafy green tops. A rich mushroom gravy pulled the ensemble together successfully.
Another dish, a half-chicken cooked in a cast-iron skillet, gave us a wonderful taste of the South with creamy polenta and braised greens in a mix of pecan-smoked bacon, pepper vinegar and maple syrup.
The seared scallops were delicious on their own but soared with a honeynut squash puree, crisp field greens and pickled okra shaped like mini green torpedoes. We added a shareable side dish of sweet potatoes awash in maple-syrup butter.
We also liked the homey sausage-and-pepper tortelloni, a simple pasta dish with good marinara, red peppers, basil and ricotta salata.
The kitchen pays close attention to its desserts, too. A warm apple crostata enveloped in a golden crust was terrific, especially topped with local Taharka Brothers vanilla-bean ice cream draped with caramel sauce and freckled with candied cashews.
A pumpkin swirl brownie was luxuriously dense and topped with Taharka honey graham ice cream and caramel.
The restaurant's cheesecake isn't baked in-house, but don't let that stop you from ordering this light and airy wedge. The sweet find is made by Charlottetown Farm in Freeland with goat milk produced onsite.
Like its early predecessor, Towson Tavern is a nurturing beacon for those who live in the area and beyond. We appreciate the option of a refined respite with good food among the neighborhood's more casual spots.