When you encounter a really cool restaurant, you may end up selfishly hoping that other people won’t discover it so it can be some longtime secret shared only by a super-fortunate in-crowd.
I felt that way after my first visit to Iron Bridge Wine Co., until I realized I’ve never made it into an in-crowd before. So all the more reason to shout out the exceptional quality of this Howard County gem, where wine, food and customers are treated with equal respect.
Located across the road from a bucolic farm, Iron Bridge suggests the kind of tavern in classic black-and-white movies where the stars pull over for a bit of atmospheric plot development or droll repartee. The cozy first room holds tables, a bar and walls packed with wines. We sat in an airier space accented with stylish art and light fixtures (a divan-like corner spot must be the most requested location).
When brothers Rob and Steve Wecker started Iron Bridge 15 years ago, they said the aim was “to offer a world-class dining experience in an unassuming, unpretentious, casual atmosphere.” That sums up neatly the reaction our little party had during a vibrant dinner (lunch and brunch are also available).
The no-attitude approach was evident at every turn. Our server guided us through the meal with a winning blend of proficiency and down-to-earth-ness (he didn’t hesitate to impart some firm opinions about California wines).
Although wine provides the foundation for Iron Bridge, the bar takes cocktails just as seriously. We particularly admired one of the house specialties, the “Granhattan,” a supple variation on the traditional Manhattan using Grand Marnier.
As for wines, a sizable assortment of by-the-glass selections is complemented by several tempting flights (including a trio dubbed “pinot envy”).
But this is the kind of place that calls out for lingering over a bottle, a choice made easier for us because it was a 40-percent-off Thursday night. We could not resist splurging on J. Bookwalter Protagonist, a powerful, yet beautifully rounded, red blend from Washington State (usually priced at $100).
Food at Iron Bridge covers familiar territory with aplomb. Buttermilk fried calamari, for example, were unusually light and gained pizzazz from sweety drop miniature peppers. The Brussels sprouts appetizer likewise popped, thanks to a piquant burst of garlic, ginger and tamari, along with a carrot kimchi and radishes.
Those sprouts could have been crisper, though, and so could the grilled flatbread pizza. But the latter provided plenty of compensation from a robust topping of garlic-herb ricotta, house-made sausage, peppers and onion.
Our entrees included a sumptuous grilled pork porterhouse, remarkably thick and tender. The accompanying sweet potato puree proved as rewarding as the braised red cabbage bursting with cinnamon flavor.
A top-quality filet mignon, finished off with a subtle red wine demi-glace, also underlined the kitchen’s expert grilling skills. Snappy green beans and a divine confit of pee wee potatoes provided perfect partnering.
The cioppino — a stew of calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels and tender-as-butter Icelandic cod — arrived in a remarkably suave broth accompanied by a grilled baguette.
Desserts kept the pleasures going. A cast iron apple crisp was a nuanced, not-too-sweet treat. A refined treatment of Black Forest cake, bathed in a cherry brandy sauce, yielded rich texture and flavor. And the silky pumpkin cheesecake mousse proved masterful.
Other than not waiting until everyone at the table was finished eating to clear away plates (an unfortunate practice now all too common), service could not have been smoother throughout. That was just one more sign of the values beneath Iron Bridge Wine Co., a restaurant that belongs on any list of the region’s best.
Iron Bridge Wine Company
10435 State Route 108 (Clarksville Pike), Columbia.
Cuisine: New American.
Prices: Appetizers $6 to $15; entrees $18 to $38.
Ambience: The cozy dining areas exude an up-market tavern vibe.
Service: Amiable, informed (even opinionated).
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]