STYLE: Quaint ambiance in an early-American home complemented by a contemporary, modern-day tavern.
YOU'LL FIND: Well-prepared foods in a variety of price points, from filet mignon to roasted chicken and pizzas.
Knowing that "The Grill" has been added to the Harryman House name is very important, especially if you haven't been to this Reisterstown restaurant in a while. You might just whoosh by the place if you're not looking carefully—well, even if you are. The current sign out front stresses the new words in bold type. And the original name is buried underneath in much smaller letters. You might as well just call it The Grill. But the changes are all about creating excitement for the landmark building that dates to around 1791—at least that's what we were told when we called to make reservations. Okay, we'll bite.
We've always liked the genteel spirit and history of the restaurant that's grown around a real log cabin. True, the food was a bit dated, but you could count on decent preparations and reliable service. So, we were wary of the new name, renovations, and updated menu. All was for naught. First, much of the place still looks the same, which is nice if you're comforted by traditional ambiance. What is new is a reconfigured bar area, some remodeled dining rooms, and a brick oven for an assortment of spiffy gourmet pizzas.
The dining room options also include burgers and a club sandwich in addition to more traditional entrées and pasta dishes. The tavern menu offers these choices plus more affordable pub fare (like nachos, sliders, and mac and cheese) and houses the requisite TVs. Wisely, the bar is sequestered from the main dining areas, so its lively conviviality doesn't overpower the quieter rooms, where elevator jazz riffs dreamily in the background.
We stopped by the tavern after work one evening and found the place buzzing with fun. We assumed happy hour was in full swing because a menu on the table listed drink specials and also had bar food offerings. There was no indication of what times these were available. We settled in with a drink and average nachos and then placed our order for pizzettes from the menu on the table.
You can imagine our surprise when the waitress whisked the menu off the table and announced that happy hour ended at 6. It was 6:10 and we had been there at least 40 minutes. It would have been nice if she had alerted us to the cutoff. So we turned our attention to the pizzas on the regular menu. We settled on the pizza salsiccia with cherry tomatoes, Italian sausage, and mozzarella, and the pizza barbacoa alla polla, our favorite with a sweet black-bean barbecue sauce, chicken chunks, and mozzarella.
When we visited the dining room on another occassion, we had the unfortunate task of christening a new server, who rose admirably to the challenge. We're sure he's still wondering about our detailed quizzing of various dishes and the amount of food we ordered and later carted home in takeout boxes. But, to his credit, he'd head to the kitchen and dutifully report back on our food questions, and even managed to hand us dessert menus when it was clear he was surprised we were going to consume more food. We commend him for taking it in stride.
We were nestled in one of the narrow enclosed-porch additions with a view of the Auto Mart and a Long & Foster sign. (This is a case where nighttime comes in handy for dimming the outdoors.) The wide wood-plank floors, forest-green walls, and crisp white tablecloths created a cozy atmosphere in the darkened room.
We started with a half-dozen oysters on the half shell. We're suckers for bluepoints from Long Island, NY, which were one of three types featured that day. (The others were Island Creek and Pebble Beach.) Ours were briny, slippery rascals powered up by traditional cocktail sauce and a Japanese mignonette sauce, which was assertive in its citrusy, vinegary intensity but a good pal to the salty bivalves. They were small, though, and at $2 a piece, seemed overpriced.
Appetizers were impressive. The mushroom fricassée was like a wonderful pot pie with wild mushrooms, bacon, rosemary, and thick cream encased in a puffy pastry shell. The smoked salmon with toast points got a modern twist with marble rye, organic salad greens, and a dollop of dill aioli along with the expected minced red onion and capers to dress up the butter-soft slices of pink fish. It was a huge portion, easily shared if you can bear to part with any of it.
Nut-crusted seafood seems to be showing up on a lot of menus these days. We liked that the Harryman House kitchen was encasing red snapper with crushed cashews instead of the usual pecans and giving it an Asian edge with a splash of soy sauce. It was a lovely dish with an inch-thick, saucer-size fillet served over pretty julienne veggies. But we had to agree that the roasted chicken was one of the most succulent, addictive pieces of poultry we've had in a while. Add the roasted shallots, mushrooms, and thick mashed potatoes, and we guarantee this is the ultimate dinner for chilly days, or, heck, any day. But we also craved greens and ordered a mélange of garlicky broccolini, snow peas, and green beans to broaden the dish a bit more.
After such a feast, you can now understand the waiter's wonder when we persevered with dessert. But our gluttony was worth the poundage. The cheesecake sampler would do any cheesecake fan proud. Two slices of New York cheesecake—one topped with fresh blueberries, the other with chocolate peanut-butter cups—were an embarrassment of creamy richness.
We think the restaurant has made a wise decision in retaining its historic character and charm while updating the menu with affordable options and creating a more modern vibe in the tavern. Just because Harryman House has been around for a while doesn't mean it should be dismissed. Just remember to add The Grill.
The Grill at Harryman House, 340 Main St., Reisterstown, 410-833-8850. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon-Sat; dinner, 4:30-10 p.m. Mon-Tues, 5-10 p.m. Wed-Thurs, 5-11 p.m. Fri-Sat, 4:30-9 p.m. Sun; brunch, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sun. Appetizers, $8-13.50; entrées, $12-34; desserts, $7-8.