Every restaurant signals in different ways what a customer can anticipate. I don't expect white tablecloths amid the cheerful clatter of a diner, or a sophisticated night out in a family restaurant where home-style favorites and comfortable dress are the draw.
Expensive places have their signals too: higher-than-average prices, better-than-average ambience and a certain flare with the menu. But on my recent visit to GreystoneGrill, one of the most expensive restaurants in the county, I found mixed signals.
Greystone is trying to stand out, and that should be applauded in a county where chain restaurants dominate. And it does so many things just right - dishes are expertly prepared, and the service is good. Only its decor and a pedestrian menu hold it back from achieving top-rank status.
Cut-stone pillars and rich wood accents create a striking first impression when you enter. It is a beautiful space, reminiscent of elements in Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Falling- water, and it signals that primal elements and an artistic hand with fine ingredients will be the focus of the evening.
But then the dining room breaks the mood with its jarringly different architectural style - cold and uninviting. A long row of banquettes covered in dull fabric lines one wall. Thin metal sconces and gray art hang above. The room projects neither warmth nor elegance.
The cooking staff at the Greystone knows what it is doing. All of our dishes were flawless, and the ingredients were all top quality. But it was mostly standard fare.
A high-end restaurant does need a few menu items that anyone will be comfortable with, but it should also offer some adventure so that customers return again and again - even at high prices - to enjoy the chef's artistry.
Instead, it was hard to find inspiration on the menu. The sea scallops came with a citrus beurre blanc, but the sauce was so shy in flavor that it got lost in an otherwise spectacular preparation. And isn't there any more interesting way to present rotisserie chicken than with "house BBQ sauce?"
The wine list here had just the opposite problem: few familiar-but-reliable producers and way too much adventure. And all the wines were pricey. My glass of Madfish Chardonnay cost $10. With its unpleasant vegetal overtones, it was not worth even half that.
The food itself, however, was superb - the Greystone could build a remarkable restaurant around this kitchen if it let the chef fly a bit more.
My companion started with bacon-wrapped sea scallops, all plump and sweet, though very expensive ($11 for three scallops). Scallops are a tough dish to get right in a restaurant because they are so easily overcooked.
But these were perfectly tender. My blue crab and artichoke fondue was not a fondue, just crab dip with pita crisps, but I didn't care what they called it. Its hot blend of cheeses and crab flowed over the crisps like a golden river.
Salad comes with entrees at the Greystone, and diners get a choice: lettuce wedge, Caesar or Greystone. The salad is a plateful, not some stripped-down version. My "Greystone salad" was a gorgeous mix of spring greens, crumbled blue cheese, raspberry vinaigrette and candied cashews, a wonderful combination of flavors and a terrific palate cleanser between courses. Neither my Greystone nor my friend's Caesar was overdressed, which is another sign of a capable, confident kitchen.
For entrees, my friend ordered an 8-ounce filet, which the Greystone promotes as corn-fed and western Black Angus. It was a generous portion, very thick and prepared medium, just as ordered.
Does the "corn-fed Black Angus" genealogy make that much of a difference, or is it just marketing? I don't know, but that steak had a wonderful flavor.
I tried one of the few mildly inventive dishes, "Chicken and crab" - pan-seared chicken topped with crab lumps and covered in a sherry cream sauce. The dish was $28.50 and required a sure hand with flavors. At that price, I expected perfection, and the kitchen came through brilliantly. Cooked through but still juicy, the chicken blended with the little lumps of crab and the delicate sherry sauce.
It was a wonderful dish, a dish for kings, but its blah name signaled none of its luscious taste. Can't there be some poetry on this menu? Why not call it Emperor's Chicken or Maryland Chicken Imperial? "Chicken and crab" sounds like fried food from a tiki bar. But that is a semantic grumble about an otherwise superb entree.
Sticking happily with the classics for dessert, my companion ordered creme brulee. She was a bit disappointed that it was not warm, but the top crust had the right shade of golden brown and a satisfying crunch.
I was still in the mood for a little adventure, so I chose "Chocolate Lava Bomba," a warm chocolate cake "volcano" topped with vanilla ice cream melting down its sides and raspberry sauce on top. With the first spoonful, molten chocolate flowed from inside. It was good, gooey, dark and dangerous - exactly the primal element I had been waiting for.
Where: 8850 Columbia 100 Parkway, Ellicott City
Credit cards: all major
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$11; entrees, $17-$34
Web site: www.greystonegrill.com
Food: *** 1/2
Rating system: Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *