It is sometimes surprising how easily Baltimoreans can escape the city and its suburbs to dine in places not yet swallowed up by the metropolis.
Such is the Willow Inn in Eldersburg, an established Carroll County crossroads community about to be overrun by strip shopping centers and franchise operations.
Blissfully, however, the urban sprawl seems farther away than it is as you gaze out the windows of the Willow Inn, a block south of Route 26 on Route 32.
Cars and pick-ups move lazily along at dusk, not yet up to suburban speed or congestion. Never mind that the houses across the street are all that shields diners from the shopping centers moving up Route 26 from the metropolitan area.
Add this to the picture: The people who work at the Willow Inn seem genuinely to try hard, with politeness and without pretension, to make dining here a tasty and relaxing experience. When is the last time you heard a waitress comment, "This really is a nice place to work"?
The decor of the restaurant's two rooms is pleasantly eclectic with a mix of paneled and plaster walls, ornately framed pictures, ceiling fans and light fixtures that reminded me of the ones in my elementary school. Around the dining room are attractive marble-topped end tables with lamps that give off a homey glow.
The restaurant, our friendly waitress told us, has been open about 18 months in what was The Eldersburg Cafe. The Willow Inn takes its name from the large Weeping Willow out back, its cues from both traditional and contemporary dining styles.
The small menu -- six appetizers, four soups, 15 standing entrees and five specials -- includes traditional fare, such as Crab Cakes and Broiled Flounder, but branches out into Cajun Shrimp and Lamb Rack Mongolian ("oven roasted rack of lamb, glazed with an apricot barbecue sauce").
Diners are welcomed to The Willow Inn with a plate-sized serving of the restaurant's own Brittle Bread, a crisp, slightly sweet, waferlike bread that hints at some pleasantly unusual tastes to come.
I began with a cup of the Maryland Crab Soup ($2.50), a pleasant, intriguingly seasoned offering featuring a large lump of backfin.
My husband had a cup of the French Onion En Croute soup ($2.25). With a golden crust draped over the bowl, the dish initially resembled a pot pie more than a soup. Like the crab soup, it was not a totally traditional taste. It succeeded -- at least to the extent of being above average, if not exceptional.
For an entree, I had Broiled Tuna, which came with a choice of dill, hollandaise or bernaise sauce ($17.95). The tuna was wonderfully, unusually moist; the hollandaise added a nice lemon accent.
My husband had Veal Francais ($14.25). The veal had been dipped in a light egg batter before cooking and was topped with a creamy lemon and wine butter sauce. The dish was delicate, satisfying, unusual.
The entrees were served invitingly on large dinner plates along with obviously fresh green beans and thinly sliced, sauteed potatoes. Both vegetables were tenderly prepared.
To finish our meal, I had a Chocolate-Raspberry Roulade ($2.75). While the deep chocolate taste complemented the oversized berries, the dish frankly looked better than it tasted.
My husband had a Chocolate Mousse, one of his perennial favorites ($3). He found it above average, but not sensational. Then again, he's very critical of mousse.
The menu suggests a wine with each entree, a nice touch. Our one unpleasant surprise of the evening came when the white wine we ordered arrived warm. After we asked, the waitress refrigerated it and re-served the bottle with our entrees.
Our bill, with the wine, two cocktails and coffee, was just over $62. In all, dining at the Willow Inn was a pleasant, relaxing experience, thanks to the setting and the people as well as to the food.
***The Willow Inn
Route 32, south of Route 26
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday and Noon to 7 p.m. Sunday Closed Mondays.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Restrooms not accessible.