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Dining Out: Houlihan's a new kind of chain

The good thing about a chain restaurant is that you know what to expect. That's also the downside. Because they need to repeat the same experience in every restaurant, there are certain constraints in the kitchen. You don't expect surprises from the chef — say, a dish inspired by the lovely snap beans just in from the local farm.

But there has been a change in chain dining in the last few years and Houlihan's is a perfect example. When we walked through the doors at the Waugh Chapel location, my sister, who knew the chain back when it was called Houlihan's Old Place (under different ownership) was floored.

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The dining room's soft lighting and cushy booths and the stunning glass and mosaic bar that greeted us was nothing like the "Old Place." And neither was the menu.

Like many chains, Houlihan's has an extensive menu offering everything from starters to sliders to flatbreads to steaks. And this was our first problem. My sister had forgotten her reading glasses. It would be impossible for us to read her the entire menu.

The waitress shook her head when asked if they had a magnifying glass in house. My sister was beside herself when Assistant Manager Bill Messick appeared at our table. "Can I help you?" he asked. "I know every item on this menu by heart."

This is where we got a real education in Houlihan's approach to dining. Bill not only knew the items, he knew how to cook them.

Like quite a few other chains that are appealing to the contemporary upscale market, Houlihan's bills itself as a "from scratch kitchen" and the managers are trained in how the dishes are assembled. When I asked if everything was scratch, he explained that some items, like the specialty condiments, were made from an outside purveyor to Houlihan's specifications. Everything else is cooked to order, which allows for some flexibility for those with allergies and special preferences. Many gluten-free selections are prominently marked.

After much discussion, we were all able to maneuver our way through the menu. It was still Happy Hour (Monday-Friday 4-7 p.m.), and although the selection of specialty drinks and beers was impressive and affordable, we zeroed in on the offering of smaller-sized appetizers from the main menu for only $4 each.

Houlihan's Famous 'Shrooms ($10 on the regular menu,) were a big hit. Huge panko-crusted mushroom caps were stuffed with garlic-herb cream cheese and served with a creamy horseradish sauce. They were greaseless, delicious and surprisingly, not too rich.

Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($9.50 on the regular menu), featured diced chicken, carrots and scallions tossed in an Asian-inspired sauce. The menu calls the stir-fry sauce "sweet and savory," but I thought it was just too sweet. Another diner said it was too salty. A third thought it was perfect. It was a Goldilocks moment.

Shrimp and Grits ($18) was one of the special entrees offered that evening. Houlihan's version plates six large shrimp on a foundation of polenta cakes in a pool of New Orleans style sauce. The polenta cakes were magic — crispy, creamy and oh-so-good. But the shrimp were overcooked and the sauce, while very tasty, smothered the dish.

If you read the online reviews. Pot Roast ($17) is regularly mentioned as a favorite. The meat was wonderfully tender and flavorful and the "gold mashers" were some of the best mashed potatoes I have every eaten. But the gravy in the dish was even too salty for my sister, who admits to being a sodium addict.

The glass wall enclosing the kitchen is etched with the words "Wood-fired." The Grilled Salmon BLT ($16) showed why Houlihan's makes this such a big deal. The perfectly grilled salmon was a standout, and its flavor exceptional enough stand up to the thick layer of bacon within.

Desserts are all made in house. We chose to share the "Best Ever Apple Pie" ($7). Served warm with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, the pie was sweetly satisfying without being too sugary. But the "best?" More apple filling and less walnut streusel topping would have made it better.

Service was a little slow on the night we were there. Water glasses were not filled and when one was tipped over, the hostess was the one who was sent to mop it up. She did not seem happy about it.

There are strengths and weaknesses in the Houlihan's experience. Appetizers are creative and for the most part, quite good. Happy Hour is a winner and the bar seems up to about anything you can throw at it. Wood-grilled is a good bet as are their salads - I've had entree salads here in the past that are still memorable. And the choice of gluten-free, vegetarian items is a welcome change. There are clunkers as well — some of the sauced items can be a little too sweet, too salty, or too much.

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But Houlihan's has a lot to offer at the Waugh Chapel Towne Centre. Creative, contemporary and with a wide range of selections for every kind of diner, it's a new kind of chain. And that's a good thing.

Final Note

If Santa has given you gift cards or extra cash, you might want to spend it on the splendid book 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List. It's a "joyous, informative, dazzling and mouthwatering book on the world's best food," by Mimi Sheraton, grand dame of food journalism and former New York Times restaurant critic.

This voluminous guidebook to gustatory delights not only details food in all its splendor, but refer cooks and diners to exemplary restaurants and suppliers so that readers can partake of the dishes for themselves. It will satisfy the most ardent foodie, and best of all, it's calorie-free!

Happy Holidays from the food folks at The Capital!

Janice Gary is an award-wining writer and author of "Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance." Her musings on writing, dogs and food can be found on Twitter @jtgary1

EXECUTIVE CHEF: Forris Pittman

WHEN YOU GO:

WHAT: Houlihan's

WHERE: Waugh Chapel Towne Center, 1407 S. Main Chapel Way, Gambrills, MD 21054

PHONE: 410-721-4468

HOURS: Sunday - Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to midnight.

FIRST COURSES: $4.50- $12

MAIN COURSES: $14.50 - $27

RESERVATIONS: Yes

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards accepted

ACCESSIBILITY: Yes

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