The first thing I noticed as we sat down at Harvey's at Greenspring Station was the pepper grinder on the table. Now that impressed me. It's always struck me as odd that restaurants will instruct waiters to grind fresh pepper on your salad but expect you to use canned pepper for your steak.

And then the menu seemed so full of good ideas. The food sounded jazzy and fun and promising. You can eat upscale and spend up to $19 for a French-sauced fish dish; but most of the menu is salads, sandwiches, omelets, pasta and reasonably priced house specialties like veal stew and Cajun barbecued chicken.

Harvey's looks after the special needs of its customers. There's a whole section called "Dieter's Dreams." (Although it's not clear what kind of diets we're talking about here: One flounder dish is served with a caramelized banana and topped with hollandaise. Still, the others are clearly low calorie.)

Enjoy good wine but can't afford $30 for a bottle? The daily menu has a featured wine by the glass; the evening we were there it was a Leonard St. Aubin Pouilly Fuisse for $6.75.

I liked the menu; I liked the setting. If you're lucky the weather will be nice and you can eat in the courtyard. But the dining rooms are comfortable, the decor moody and interesting with its rag-textured walls and offbeat colors. What I didn't like was the slow, slow service and the fact that the food, when we finally got it, didn't live up to its promise.

Take the birdnest chicken ($6.95), a first course of chicken, apples and pistachios wrapped in phyllo pastry. It was flavored with so much sage it tasted like Thanksgiving stuffing sitting in a pool of raspberry sauce. That didn't make sense to me. This is the same kitchen that turned out a gorgeous starter called "Gucci ravioli" ($5.95), four tender, homemade pasta pillows striped Gucci-fashion, filled with ricotta and a bit of chopped spinach and bathed in cream. Somewhere between the two fell the soup of the day, hearty Portuguese ($2.75), a spicy, tomato-based concoction whose only ethnic feature was chunks Italian sausage.

We waited half an hour for our first courses, which was too long on a slow Sunday evening. The rest of the meal also took its own sweet time in arriving.

The charbroiled swordfish with two sauces ($18.95) was worth the wait, though. Nicely grilled, the two fillets were laid on two elegant sauces. A zingy jalapeno cream sauce made a pretty contrast to the velvet-smooth roasted red pepper sauce on the other half of the plate.

A house specialty, half a rack of Danish baby back ribs ($10.95 with a salad only), was a subdued version of ribs -- OK, but not memorable. One of us nobly volunteered to try the dieter's charbroiled tuna and salad ($8.95); the good, fresh fish was overcooked and dry, and there was nothing to disguise the fact. A better bet was chicken Sichuan ($14.95). The chicken was tender, the combination interesting: bean sprouts and broccoli, but also red cabbage and raw peanuts, with an incendiary, faintly sweet sauce. The only problem was that the chicken Sichuan was served with a baked potato. It needed rice to cool the fire.

Actually, if you don't want a baked potato you could have the vegetable du jour, this day a strange-looking combination of cauliflower and chopped spinach that wasn't bad. Dinners also include green salads, which had too much sliced raw squash, cauliflower and mushrooms in them for my taste. But the low point of my meal came when I reached into the basket for a piece of bread. The bottom of it was soggy with something, maybe tomato sauce.

Desserts are extravagant, each more elaborate than the last. For those of you who sneer at the Dieter's Dreams, Harvey's has a peanut butter bomb ($3.95) -- chocolate and peanut butter mousses in a chocolate ganache with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Devastating. And a chocolate pate ($3.95) that was amazingly rich and needed either the peach coulis or the strawberry coulis it was served with but not both. Lemon mousse ($4) in a tuille (cookie shell) was super, but it was a bit overwhelmed by raspberry sauce and mountains of whipped cream.

We ended our meal with two coffees and a cappuccino. Or rather, we ordered two coffees and a cappuccino. We got two coffees and an espresso. At that point I was irritated anyway because a vacuum cleaner was being run in the dining room next to us. True, it was 9 p.m.; but we had gotten to Harvey's at 7 and it wasn't our fault we were still there.

Harvey's at Greenspring Station, 2360 W. Joppa Road, (410) 296-9526. Open every day for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch. Major credit cards. No-smoking: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.

Next: Caesar's Den

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