COZY AIR, SPICY ACCENTS, DECENT STEAK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I like a restaurant with self-confidence. At least I guess that's what it is when you're a chain that opened in 1996 and you call yourself Stoney River Legendary Steaks.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Every steakhouse has to have a concept that sets it apart from the other places that offer large portions of beef. Stoney River's is that it sells lifestyle as well as steaks. You know how crazy busy mall eateries can be, especially the new hot ones; but this one promises "Steak. Seafood. Sanctuary."

Run that one by me again?

You can't promise sanctuary and also serve the "mountain of homemade bleu cheese chips," can you?

But come to think of it, the mountain concept works with the lifestyle theme. The decor is meant to convey mountain lodge appeal: the quiet of the early morning as you look over the lake from your rustic cabin, birds twittering. The rhythmic slap-slap of a canoe paddle dipping into the water. That kind of thing.

In fact, there's a red canoe hung in every Stoney River location. Add to that a rugged wood-and-stone interior, with fireplace, wooden furniture and comfortable booths, and you've got yourself a mountain retreat. The only problem is that everybody in Baltimore is with you in your mountain retreat.

Just be sure to call and make reservations. No, wait. Don't bother. When you arrive you'll be told the wait is 20 minutes, and the people before you who didn't have reservations are told the wait will be 20 minutes and they are seated first.

Before I go any further, I should tell you I may be the only person in Baltimore, or at least Towson, who isn't totally in love with Stoney River.

To be fair, its virtues are many. For one thing, as crowded as it was the night I was there, it wasn't too noisy. The dining room must have great soundproofing.

The service is pretty good; even though our waitress was inexperienced, she had plenty of backup.

The beef isn't prime, but it's good anyway, and you can get a reasonably priced steak here. The seafood is very fresh. The wine list is short and to the point, heavy on the reds, but it has a little something for everyone, including some wines by the glass for under $6.

The entrees are reasonably priced for a steakhouse - in the $20 to $25 range, and that includes a potato and in some cases a potato and green vegetable.

There are wooden pepper grinders and salt shakers on every table. That's important in a restaurant where meat is the star. Or it would be, but at Stoney River the steaks are all preseasoned with a garlic-and-herb mixture unless you request otherwise. I would request otherwise - not because the seasoning isn't good, but because it seemed to include an awful lot of salt. If you like the taste of good meat, it's pretty well hidden under the seasoning.

I like the fact that if you want beef, you get a lot of choices not only in cuts but also in amount, from the 7-ounce-and-up filet to the 22-ounce-and-down rib eye. The signature item is a coffee-marinated filet, and the overnight marinade imparts flavor to this sometimes flavorless cut without making it taste like coffee. But this was salty as well. It comes with overseasoned potatoes au gratin and green beans sauteed in butter, a bit greasy.

The prime rib suffers more than the steaks from not being prime grade. Still, at $24.99 for 12 ounces and a choice of potatoes, it will satisfy your meat lust without breaking the bank. Order it with the steak fries (in fact, order anything with the steak fries); they are thick, crisp outside and soft within, and just salty enough. Or the mashed sweet potatoes, if you like them a bit sweet with a healthy dash of cinnamon.

Stoney River's 12-ounce rib-eye is excellent, and one of my friends paired it with "Oscar," 2 ounces of lump crab and a bit of bearnaise sauce for an extra $6.99. As long as you're being extravagant, you might as well add asparagus to the dish as well (for an extra $6.99) and create your own Beef Oscar.

For those who don't want beef, Stoney River offers quite a bit of seafood. This kitchen loves to season, so the fresh, well-cooked salmon comes Szechuan-style, with a spicy rub. It also comes with "Thai rice," which tastes pretty much like rice, and fresh sauteed spinach.

The kitchen extends itself a bit more with the appetizers. There is, for instance, spanakopita. The phyllo pastry was too oily, but smoky tomato-and-wine sauce helped ameliorate that. The spinach filling was fine.

I've never had onion soup cooked for 12 hours. (Well, it's called 12 Hour Roasted Onion Soup). It ends up being more of an onion puree than a traditional onion soup, but the flavor was excellent, and it was one of the highlights of the meal.

Stoney River has two appetizers that are so expensive they must be ordered in place of an entree by a lot of people. I didn't try the crab cake, which is only offered as a first course, deciding instead on the signature tempura lobster tail. No complaints about this one: It has a very light coating of tempura batter and is quickly fried. There is a honey mustard sauce to go with it, which is fine, but if that isn't rich enough, there's also drawn butter.

Another possibility is the whiskey shrimp, which come perched on fat rounds of baguette with a thick, creamy sauce flavored with mustard and Jack Daniels. Save those rounds of baguette if you like bread with dinner, because if you do, the rolls (called Stoney River puppies) won't satisfy you, even though they are hot, light and soft. They are in the shape of hush puppies; but they taste like fried doughnut holes with poppy seeds in them, especially when you put the sweet honey butter on them.

Save them for dessert. But then, of course, you wouldn't have room for the signature triple-layer chocolate ganache cake. It looks unappetizing - what looks like a quarter of a mile-high cake with a butcher knife stuck through the top because one person could never eat it alone. I'm not a huge fan of densely chocolate cake, but this was so fresh, so soft, so intensely chocolatey, with little bits of chocolate, it was hard to resist. Other desserts, like the cappuccino creme brulee and cheesecake, seem pedestrian by comparison.

As steakhouse chains in the mid-price range go, Stoney River is a decent one. If I went back, I would order beef, and I would order it without the seasoning. It's good enough to stand on its own. I probably wouldn't order an appetizer; they seem to me disproportionately expensive compared to the entrees. And I would definitely pick an off-hour to go unless I felt like waiting for a table.

Stoney River Legendary Steaks

Where: : 25 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

Contact: : 410-583-5250, StoneyRiver.com.

Hours: : Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Appetizers:: $7.99-$15.99

Entrees:: $11.99-$33.99

Food:: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 )

Service:: *** ( 3 STARS)

Atmosphere:: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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