The first glimmer of what lie ahead came at the Sunoco station on Route 1, the Harford County strip that ever-more draws Baltimore and Philadelphia closer.
"You're the fifth car that's stopped here tonight looking for Josef's," said the attendant. "There must be a party."
"I love the stuffed shells," the attendant said as she gave us directions. "And the lasagna's wonderful."
Stuffed shells? Lasagna? At Josef's Country Inn?
She must have been thinking of the Italian place next door. But my husband and I made it to Josef's and had a dinner that was a tribute to good cooking, creative recipes and professional but relaxed service.
The ride up Route 1 from the Beltway was a miniature time warp. Around one bend, a subdivision of seaside-style homes; around another, a roadside tavern predating sprawl.
But turn off Route 1 onto Mountain Road and the countryside becomes so rural, so calming that you feel as if you've been transported to an earlier decade.
Except for the noise, Josef's intensifies that feeling. The main dining room, with about 15 tables, is pretty and homey; paintings and clocks fill the walls.
The tables are, however, rather close, making it necessary sometimes to speak up to be heard over neighboring diners. Thus, the noise level the Saturday night we were there was relatively high, even though the pace seems slower than at many restaurants.
Our waitress, seemingly unaffected by the commotion, never seemed hurried -- or harried. She waited while my husband and I decided what cocktails we wanted, unhurriedly described the night's specials and patiently repeated the ones I could not hear the first time. When we wanted to chat, she gave us her attention.
Josef's menu offers several German specialties, such as Wiener Schnitzel, Sauerbraten with Spaetzle and Kassler Rippchen. It also affords a nice sampling of seafood, beef and veal. But no stuffed shells or lasagna.
We started with Black Bean Soup ($2.95 a cup) and a Caesar Salad for one ($3.95). The soup, a special that evening, was a thick, savory puree with a dollop of sour cream and diced onions. The salad was fresh and well-dressed.
For entrees, I chose the only chicken dish, Chicken Baltimore ($16.75), and my husband selected Veal Emmenthal ($15.50), which was among the "featured dinners." We were both pleased.
Chicken Baltimore was two good-sized, tender chicken breasts topped with excellent crab and tomatoes. This was all atop a base of linguine in a white wine sauce. The lumps of crab were first-rate and the whole dish had a creaminess that made it special. I could eat only half.
The Veal Emmenthal, a signature dish of owner Josef Gohring, began with a large, thin slice of veal, topped with Swiss cheese and a reduced brown sauce. The combination of seasonings, veal, Swiss and sauce was savory and satisfying, the kind of dish that should be eaten slowly to make the effect last.
Josef's also offers an unusual selection of side dishes. We ordered Fried Onion Rings ($2.95) and Dumplings ($2.50). With our meals came wonderful House Potatoes and perfectly cooked broccoli.
The onion rings were crispy outside, but oh-so-tender in. The breading was light; the frying was done perfectly. And the dumplings, with gravy, would have done the best sauerbraten proud.
Desserts were as good as the rest of the meal.
My husband said afterward that he had never understood others' fascination with German Chocolate Cake, which he has usually found heavy on the coconut to the detriment of other flavors. With Josef's version, however, he began to appreciate what a beautiful concoction this can be. The difference between Josef's, at $3.75, and the rest was a far more delicate balance of flavors.
My Apple Strudel ($3.25) was equally delicious with a thick, but tender, crust and not-too-sweet filling. Our bill, with two cocktails, two coffees and a bottle of wine, was just under $83.
We had thoroughly enjoyed our evening at Josef's, and were even more impressed when our waitress stopped us on our way out to thank us for the tip. The ride back to Baltimore seemed shorter than the ride out, in part because we weren't strangers to the way; in part because we had had a memorable meal.
Josef's Country Inn
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. serving brunch instead of lunch.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: No separate areas designated