Linwood's, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, (410) 356-3030. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$8.95; entrees: $10.95-$24.95.

When Linwood's Cafe-Grille opened five years ago to rave reviews, it immediately became one of the area's hottest tickets. The remarkable thing is that Linwood's has maintained its popularity, even though times aren't good for expensive, elegant restaurants (which it is, in spite of the name).

For the last two years, Linwood's has been listed among the top five of the area's favorite restaurants by the Zagat Survey, along with such heavy hitters as Tio Pepe, Prime Rib, Hampton's and the Milton Inn. It's probably the least well-known of the group, but it's well enough known that even on weeknights every table is taken.

Partly that's because of location, location, location. Linwood's doesn't have much competition in the immediate area. And partly it's because the restaurant is different things for different people. If I were a single woman eating there, I'd be perfectly comfortable sitting at the counter surrounding the open kitchen: In fact, I'd have a great time. If I wanted a casual meal, I'd order from the regular dinner menu, composed entirely of salads, sandwiches and pastas. But Linwood's is best for a no-holds-barred, dress-to-the-nines, sky's-the-limit expense account or special-occasion feast. That's what the weekly specials menu offers; and because the food is inventive and sometimes quite wonderful, it's the main reason Linwood's is so crowded night after night.

But food isn't everything, not when entrees are in the $20-$25 range. Like the Prime Rib, the setting is a big part of the draw here -- a dining room that has loads of New York-style swank. That means deep mahogany walls, glittering mirrors, plush appointments. The room is divided into a series of smaller areas; they give it an intimate feel even when it's crowded. This would be a formal room -- perhaps a little dated -- except for the open kitchen, which makes it very au courant.

Like the setting, the service is exceptional. And not just because all the waiters look like junior stockbrokers. Our waiter had a real knack for being unobtrusive, but he was there when we needed him. (He didn't introduce himself, either.) We did have to wait too long for our desserts, but my guess is that it wasn't his fault.

And now for the food. Linwood's has kept up with the times, so the menu has changed subtly from the New American cuisine it used to specialize in to comfort food. I'm overstating the case, but five years ago you wouldn't have found roasted chicken with mashed potatoes ("Please allow 30 minutes") on the menu. If that's not your thing, though, you can still get half a rack of lamb over warm goat cheese salad.

Our first courses were irresistible, not a dud among them: buttery risotto enlivened by fresh basil and one perfect shrimp. A salad with a light, creamy Parmesan dressing hiding a few hot, fried potato cubes and topped with crisply fried onion rings. (Don't ask me why this works, but it does.) A potato cake surrounded by gravlax and a drizzle of sour cream sparked with dill. Romaine, cucumber and onion in a velvety avocado vinaigrette surrounded by fresh salsa.

Linwood's kitchen does best with beginnings and endings. The ingredients for our main courses were superb; the preparation commendable. But I didn't always agree with the concept. Take the soft-shell crabs. They were fried in cornmeal, which didn't quite work with their bed of corn puree. (The corn didn't look as good as everything else did, either.) No complaints about the fresh asparagus, though.

Grilled tenderloin was topped with buttermilk onions, which turned out to be more of those fried onions that were on the salad. The beef was unbelievably tender, but I would have liked it better without the faintly sweet brown sauce. "Mixed vegetables" surrounded the beef. At first glance they looked like the carrots and peas everybody's mom used to serve, but they were actually diced, tender-crisp snow peas and cubed carrots -- mom-food taken to new heights.

Grilled salmon was delicious; I could take or leave the Portuguese sauce of chopped tomatoes that covered it. But it was very pretty with baby bibb lettuce dressed in a faintly sweet vinaigrette.

The only real disappointment was the vegetable plate, disappointing only because everything was heaped together, not arranged artfully, and by this time I was tired of fried onions on top. But I loved everything else: the steamed asparagus, fresh spinach, roasted red pepper, skewered squash, onions and mushrooms and a wedge of polenta.

Then came the endings I mentioned earlier. Linwood's makes its own soft and creamy lemon ice cream. It has a decadent chocolate bread pudding that tastes like a warm, fallen chocolate souffle. The espresso cheesecake is out of this world. And a bittersweet chocolate truffle torte was as intensely chocolate and rich as anything I've ever put in my mouth.

One of us ordered a dessert sampler of the bread pudding, cheesecake and a scoop of ice cream with homemade hot chocolate sauce. The kitchen forgot to place the scoop of ice cream on the sauce before it was served, but it was so good it got eaten by itself.

Next: Summer cafes

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