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Springs Landing Fine Country Pub pairs five-star food with small-town friendliness

History is full of romantic stories starring lone travelers, weary and cold, coming upon quaint country pubs and finding shelter and fellowship for a night. Modern life, with our zippy cars, GPS apps and chain restaurant-filled strip malls, makes these stories feel faraway and foreign.

But at Springs Landing Fine Country Pub in Mount Airy, the romance lives. Located in Howard County's northwestern corner, Springs Landing exudes quiet country charm — with a menu as sophisticated as a celebrated spot in any big city.

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During our Thursday night visit, the restaurant was quiet, with just a few people in the small wine bar, leaving us the dining room to ourselves.

Just after we sat, Springs Landing chef and owner Kevan Vanek introduced himself, giving us a brief description of his history and cooking philosophy. Vanek's experience is diverse; before discovering his love of cooking, he was an actor and ballet dancer and studied opera in Italy.

In 2010, he took the helm of Drovers Grill and Maryland Wine Co., which he reinvented as Springs Landing last summer.

During our chat, Vanek mentioned that he's a fan of "intense" sauces. When our food arrived, we discovered that he wasn't exaggerating.

We started with the rustic crab and goat cheese purses, three bundles of herbaceous goat cheese and crab stuffed inside puff pastry. Seated on a sweet and earthy sauce of tomato and beet, the hors d'oeuvres looked delicate but were packed with flavor. We were pleasantly surprised, too, that the tang of the goat cheese did not overwhelm the crab; the balance between the two ingredients was just right.

As we debated our entrée choices, Vanek brought us a small dish of the sauce that accompanies his Lafayette's Chicken du'Poplar. One spoonful of the rich peanut sauce and we were sold; we ordered the entrée.

The dish was a take on the French favorite coq au vin, in which chicken is braised in wine. The sauce in Vanek's version pairs riesling and peanut butter; the tender chicken is served over noodles with a scoop of bright cranberry chutney. The result captures the best of the French dish, but the peanut gives the sauce a bit of Asian flair.

On the side, a bowl of gently cooked vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, tomatoes and carrots, was large and tasty enough to be an entrée of its own.

The Unpotted Roast was a sophisticated spin on pot roast, with beef slowly braised in Guinness, then topped with a heady sauce of Guinness and merlot. House-made parpadelle pasta added even more heft, and carrots lightened the dish, providing a bit of welcome sweetness.

We paired our meals with the Zen of Zin zinfandel, a food-friendly red wine from Sonoma, Calif. Springs Landing's wine and beer lists are straightforward but interesting and smart, making ordering easy.

A dessert of bread pudding was less complex than our meals but still lovely and sumptuous — a fitting end to an impressive dinner.

After our meals but before dessert, Vanek came back to our table, carrying three red wines he said he was considering adding to the menu. The three of us tasted the wines, chatting about them and about his time in Italy.

We had another waiter, as well, which meant we were never left waiting for refills or assistance. The two men were careful not to hover, though.

Since the restaurant wasn't busy, we realized we may have gotten more attentive service than is possible some nights. But given Vanek's friendly personality, it seems likely that any guest at Springs Landing would feel as welcome and satisfied as we did.

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