Harryman House, 340 Main St., Reisterstown, (410) 833-8850. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair access: yes.
I wish more places would realize that customers' impressions of a restaurant start when they call to make reservations, not when they sit down to eat. When you call the Harryman House in Reisterstown you get the feeling that genuinely nice people are running the show. And that feeling carries on through the meal. In this particular case, when I wasn't sure how long it would take to drive there, the person who answered the phone assured me they'd hold our table till we arrived.
Harryman House specializes in small-town friendliness, but it has some big-time ideas about food. It offers wild mushroom fricassee and grilled duck breast in a setting where you might expect fried chicken and homemade biscuits.
The core of the restaurant is a log cabin that was built 200 years ago, then hidden under plaster to form an interior room of a later building. When the owners discovered the cabin by accident 10 years ago, they uncovered the log walls to make a charming period dining room with a large fireplace. It's surrounded by an enclosed porch where you can eat all year-round. My only complaint with the layout is that it doesn't include a no-smoking area. The rooms are small, so that really matters.
The Harryman House is a funny combination of special-occasion restaurant and drop-in-after-a-hard-day-at-work place. You can get rack of lamb and steak au poivre (and spend between $15 and $20 on your main course and one vegetable alone) or you can choose from the list of lighter dishes, hamburgers and sandwiches even at dinner time for under $9. The customers are dressed accordingly -- that is, either very formally or not formally at all.
Two of us shared a seafood sampler ($11.95) for a first course. (Any of the items on it can be had separately.) We were impressed by most of it. Two enormous steamed shrimp were firm and fresh with just the right spicy seasoning. Smaller shrimp curled in a sweet but good barbecue sauce.
I'm of the opinion that the less you do to an oyster the better. But these were fat and fresh enough to stand up to being wrapped in a thin slice of ham, covered with an imperial sauce and baked. Baked clams dusted with Parmesan and drenched in garlic butter with a bit of bacon were even better. Only the four chilled crayfish failed to please: They were salty and not as fresh as they should have been.
The Harryman House offers smoked trout ($7) as a first course, and three of us could easily have split it. An enormous slab of smoked trout fillet was presented with toast points, capers, chopped egg, onion and a seasoned mayonnaise. Good but not sublime, and daunting for one person.
The bigger-is-better theme carried over to the rest of our meal except -- oddly enough -- for desserts (which are so often oversized at restaurants). A special that night was steak Diane ($15.95), but instead of small steaks cooked tableside we got a huge New York strip, pink as ordered, in an ocean of brown sauce flavored with a slightly sweet sherry. It tasted fine, but the kitchen isn't going to get any stars for presentation.
The same was true for the handsome slab of poached salmon ($15.25). It was fresh and flavorful, but the whole plate was a sea of green, the butter sauce colored by pureed spinach.
Our best dish of the evening was slices of grilled duck breast ($16.95), meaty and not at all fatty, with a crisp, gently charred skin. The slices were prettily arranged, and the sauce flavored with raspberries and Chambord wasn't allowed to overwhelm them.
With dinner came a plate of carrots and broccoli, cooked longer than I like, and wild rice. Salads cost extra, and to my mind aren't interesting enough to spend $3 on when there's so much other food.
There are no light desserts served here, but at least the extravagantly rich cheesecakes and dense chocolate concoctions come in small slices. Go for broke and get the warm derby pie ($3.50), a sort of hot tollhouse cookie in a pie crust. You might as well have it with ice cream while you're at it. The only dessert made on the premises, according to our waitress, was a chocolate pie ($4.95) that was solid chocolate. It made the pumpkin mousse cheesecake ($3.50) seem low calorie in comparison.
The Harryman House has a well-selected wine list and an obvious interest in wine (although our white wine was served in red wine glasses). The restaurant offers special dinners regularly with a prix-fixe menu featuring different wines with different courses; call and ask to be put on its mailing list for announcements.
Next: Pier 500