When nice little restaurants like the Hunt Cafe in Cockeysville go begging for customers, you understand why the area has chains and very little else. That must be what people want. But for those few of you who don't want to eat with a thousand other people in a large, noisy restaurant and who haven't discovered the quirky little cafe behind the Jiffy Lube, here's what you need to know.
The Hunt Cafe opened in the spot where the Artful Palate used to be. It has the same two strikes against it that that elegant little eatery did. It's totally tucked away so it gets no drive-by business, and it doesn't have a liquor license. (Customers are welcome to bring their own.) Maybe the third strike is that it's a neighborhood restaurant with no real neighborhood.
What could help the Hunt Cafe overcome the odds against it, if word ever gets out, is that just about everything is made on the premises, from the Irish soda bread to the chocolate hazelnut ice cream. Prices are moderate, and the food is good if not inspired. (The bread, however -- both the soda bread and the crisp-crusted baguette -- is inspired.)
The dining room has been fixed up since it was the Artful Palate. The dark green walls, brass chandeliers and hunting prints give the room a clubby look -- offset, to be sure, by the black and white tile floor and the cheerful red Formica tables. I would throw white tablecloths on those tables at night to give the room a slightly more formal look. It would go better with the dinner menu, which runs to filet mignon with sauce bearnaise and lobster tails as well as chicken parmigiana.
Of course, more formality might highlight the deficiencies in the service, which is very sweet and very amateur. No problem when there were only four of us in the dining room one weeknight. Any more customers might have been more than our waitress could handle.
The owner, Joe Imbrosi, understands the kind of food people need this time of year. A bowl of oyster stew made with half and half, bacon and onions delivered warmth and comfort. French onion soup had no pretensions, just a hefty stock soaking into bread and a warm blanket of cheese. A boneless double pork chop would satisfy any carnivore, the juicy meat cooked just to tender doneness.
The Hunt Cafe's version of duck a l'orange is decidedly down home. The duck is almost braised in its orange-flavored sauce. If you can avoid comparisons to French cuisine, it's satisfying in a comfort-food sort of way. Fried oysters with shoestring fries and a bit of coleslaw are a happy antidote to the winter blahs.
The kitchen stretches a bit with a tilapia fillet, fresh and mild and shifted into high gear by browned butter and capers. This, like the other dinners (except for the duck), is flanked by a baked potato and broccoli. The duck comes with wild rice.
For some reason, the appetizer on the specials list was melon wrapped with prosciutto -- better than we had any right to expect honeydew to be this time of year. Smoked salmon with toast points, capers, onions and cream cheese is a safe bet here.
The appetizer list is short, but entrees run to several steaks, crab cakes and crab imperial, chicken Marengo as well as chicken parmigiana and salmon, trout and tuna as well as the tilapia (or, as the menu calls it, St. Peter fish).
As for dessert, there's no reason to choose anything but the homemade chocolate hazelnut ice cream, although the double chocolate cake delivers chocolate in spades and the baked apple tart is an alternative for people who don't crave chocolate. Just understand that it's not a baked tart, but a baked apple with a crust.
So what's not to like? Here's a friendly little restaurant where you can get a good meal for less than $20 when you're too tired to cook. Why isn't every table taken, even on a weeknight?
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 10515 York Road, Cockeysville
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; main courses, $12.95-$21.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *