Rarely do I begin a review of a restaurant by talking about parking. But the Tiber River Tavern is in Ellicott City, and those who know the historic district will understand that convenient parking is as important as, say, a fine rib-eye steak. Ellicott City's newest restaurant is just a few minutes walk away from a large, for the most part free, parking lot behind Main Street and just across Old Columbia Pike. Look for Parking Lot D.
That said, the Tiber River Tavern also has a fine rib-eye steak going for it. The kitchen gussies the meat up with lots of blue cheese melted on top and candied walnuts -- don't roll your eyes -- but the quality of the well-marbled beef shines through.
The Tiber River Tavern is the newest venture of Greg Tolker and Richard Shackelford, who are also involved with the more casual G.L. Shacks in Catonsville. But this is more than just another bar with food because they've brought in Rob Rehmert, formerly at the Lord Baltimore Radisson, to run the kitchen.
"Frankly, I was getting bored," the new chef says. "The corporate business was wearing on me. This gave me a chance to stay creative."
Creative can be a scary word, but Rehmert does a fine job expressing his Albuquerque, N.M., roots with influences of French, Asian and a little bit of the Deep South. It's American food with a kick, garnished with radish sprouts and decorated with pretty squiggles of sauce.
Fried green tomatoes, that Southern classic, are given new life with a black-eyed-pea and corn salsa and a saffron-tinged aioli. Pink shrimp nestle happily on corncakes bathed with a garlic and white-wine cream. A grilled quesadilla is fat with chicken and cheese. Salsa and sour cream are served on the side, of course.
A portobello mushroom almost groans under the weight of salmon, goat cheese and spinach -- and if those aren't enough flavors for you, the dish is finished off with a smooth, lemony sauce. Like the other appetizers on the menu, these are mini-meals: filling, rich and intriguing.
Most of them would work as light fare with a salad, but if you want a sandwich or such, head for the bar side of Tiber River. The dining room is meant to be a bit more formal (although you won't be out of place in jeans). The entrees are limited to four seafood dishes, two steaks, two chickens and a pasta. The choices aren't inexpensive for tavern fare, but there are few if any missteps because the kitchen isn't attempting too much.
A salmon fillet is twirled around an herbed cream-cheese and spinach filling; the result is a pleasing variation on a fish that's turning up on every menu these days. Capellini pasta creates interest with lump crab meat and chopped tomatoes in a translucent white-wine sauce. If you feel like chicken and the Southern fried chicken with a cucumber-tomato relish sounds a bit heavy, chicken Santa Fe, a marinated and grilled boneless breast, should fill the bill. It comes with one of those fluffy corncakes and a zippy poblano sauce. House-made mashed potatoes and a fresh vegetable -- this evening, green beans and carrots -- round out the plates.
It's all a bit more ambitious (and more successfully accomplished) than you might expect, from the crusty rolls that start the meal to the fine creamy cheesecake that ends it. Of course, there's also the obligatory chocolate denseness and a couple of desserts that I would bet aren't made in house but are OK: an apricot and cake concoction and a lemon tart.
The food, I have to say, is a notch above the atmosphere, which is perfectly acceptable and comfortable but a little dowdy. A gray stone wall is the two-level dining room's most exciting feature. Wall-to-wall carpeting and tablecloths absorb sound, and that's a good thing.
In any case, what you'll remember about the Tiber River Tavern is your meal. With this place and Jordan's, the steakhouse that opened earlier this year, Ellicott City's historic district is well on its way to being visited for its restaurants as well as its antiques dealers and quaint shops.
Tiber River Tavern
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 3733 Old Columbia Pike, Ellicott City
Hours: Daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$9.95; main courses, $14.95-$23.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *