It's a beautiful walk to the door of The Oregon Grille amid the greenery of Hunt Valley. You stroll along a winding path with seasonal blooms, tended gardens, and anachronistic lawn jockeys to enter the restaurant's hushed, dark anteroom. Saddles and bridles line the wall. (You are in horse country.) A row of blue blazers takes up space in the coatroom. (Gentlemen are required to wear jackets for dinner.) After all, this is where some of Baltimore's top movers and shakers take their meals.
We were escorted to a table in a breezeway off the main dining room. We liked the brightness of our dining area compared to the dark-wood, dim setting in the other room. But we couldn't shake the feeling that we may have been shunted to an out-of-the-way place. No big deal: We were there for more pressing business. There's a new chef in the kitchen, and we were curious about Stefan Sabo, who took over as executive chef after Mark Henry retired from the restaurant.
We found Sabo's interpretations of the menu masterful. Definitely go for the food, but be forewarned that service can sometimes be a bit haughty. There's a polite coolness if the staff doesn't know you. But once the plates start to arrive, you'll be too busy eating seriously delicious food to notice.
We're still thinking about the hot smoked salmon appetizer, which kept reinventing itself as its flavors slipped along the tongue. The assertive fish proved an able match for the puddle of lentil chili, jalapeño rounds, and frizzled tortilla strips that joined the plate. The other starters—Caesar salad with pleasant slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano amid the bright-green romaine; a silky bisque with flecks of sweet, briny shrimp; and clams casino with plump mollusks and thick-cut bacon—turned ordinary into special.
Entrées kept us swept up in the gustatory momentum. Secretly, we each thought we had the best dish. The mixed grill arrived with its four different meats (duck breast, lamb chop, petite filet mignon, and pork medallion) stacked neatly on the plate, calling out like Muses to a carnivore's soul. Each morsel was rare as requested and packed with its own distinct animal taste. The rib-eye steak, a special of the evening, was delivered, per our instructions, Pittsburgh style—blackened on the outside, purplish pink and warm to the touch inside. We didn't even need the thick red-wine sauce, which, thoughtfully, came in a dish on the side.
The restaurant may be known for its steaks, but it doesn't slide in the seafood department. The grilled Chilean sea bass was a snowy-white mound of impossibly fresh fish that melted in the mouth. It couldn't have been out of the water for long. And the grilled salmon, a completely different interpretation from the appetizer we had, exuded a wild fish flavor that worked well with the soothing, cool field taste of the watercress risotto.
Most sides are extra and served family style. There's plenty to share, from fluffy, garlicky mashed potatoes to tender green beans, as slim and delicate as haricots vert.
What impressed us about the dessert menu was the number of dessert beers on the list. We didn't partake, but it was nice to see that the restaurant is on top of the trend to pair craft brews with food. Desserts are, as expected from the rest of the meal, decadent and creative. The chocolate terrine in crème anglaise resembled a glammed-up candy bar, and the mocha praline cheesecake notched up respectability for this often predictable dessert. Then, in the flick of an eye, we saw our distant waitress get excited for the first time when we ordered the blueberry slump. "My favorite," she gushed. We also liked this old-fashioned dessert with syrupy berries and a biscuit topping that was served warm. And while the Key lime pie delivered a sweet-tart tropical pleasantness, we thought it would have been better on its own, without the swirly whipped-cream topping.
We returned for lunch soon after to see if the kitchen was holding up its end with noontime food. It was. A grilled portobello-and-cheese sandwich on rustic white bread was a slippery burst of earthy mushroom, creamy Boursin, roasted tomato, and provolone cheese. Our grilled Roquefort filet was regal on a French round roll with grilled onions and a tease of blue cheese on the slim, lunchtime steak.
While the food was again delightful, there were some service gaffs. We waited too long before our order was taken and the food delivered. Also our server had an annoying habit of questioning us. For instance, after we only ordered two sandwiches, our waiter looked at us surprised, exclaiming, "No starters?" Um, no, just sandwiches. We had a similar experience with dessert. We decided on a silky crème brûlée with four perfect raspberries and two spoons. Again, he asked, "Just one?"
We realize he may have been calculating his tip according to the amount of food we would ingest. But that's our decision, not his wallet's. No matter, we left sated and happy to have enjoyed another excellently prepared meal at the Oregon Grille.