When they opened their Owings Mills oasis for fine dining back in 1988, owners Ellen and Linwood Dame called it Linwood's Cafe-Grille.
Over the years, the name has been streamlined. Even the apostrophe has been plucked out.
It is now simply Linwoods, and the restaurant is doing today what it has always done, which basically comes down to giving a demanding clientele what it wants without making it seem condescending or patronizing.
That's no easy trick, and Linwoods makes it all appear smooth and easy. On a recent Saturday night, the dining room was a sea of unruffled feathers. There was an interior remodeling at Linwoods back in 2010, which softened some of the dining room's hard edges.
The room is given great energy by its exhibition-style kitchen, which is enclosed by a dining counter, where you can sit and watch a well-oiled kitchen staff put together your dinner. Only a few diners were seated there when we visited. Most people seem to prefer the traditional table seating.
Expanses of wood, handsome upholstery, white tablecloths and carefully placed contemporary prints and objects give Linwoods the look of a place that's worth lavishing a little extra money on. And you can go big at Linwoods — there are $45 steaks on the menu and a $32 tenderloin salad. But even on a Saturday night, you can make a not-so-terribly expensive dinner out of, say, a pizza from the wood-burning oven or spinach salad and a hamburger.
Linwoods has also figured out a way to keep favorites on the menu — the roasted chicken has been a staple from the beginning — while still appealing to diners who like to try something new every once in a while. You keep a kitchen staff engaged, too, when they get to experiment with new dishes.
Fully half of the menu in late March was devoted to a listing of "Spring Specials" — first courses built around new peas, spring asparagus and sunny eggs and entrees featuring halibut, venison and braised short ribs.
The spring asparagus ravioli is a standout. The ravioli, filled with warm ricotta cheese, were pleasingly light and silky. Shaped into pretty blossoms, the ravioli were nestled in a lightly dressed tumble of asparagus and pea shoots. Dressed with a tarragon vinaigrette and topped, generously, with shaved Parmesan cheese and strips of glistening bacon, the pea salad is marvelous.
An appetizer of fried oysters was pretty enough, and the oysters' flavor and texture were intact inside the light breading. An accompanying remoulade sauce needed a dash of cayenne, maybe, or two dashes of black pepper, to give it more oomph. From the regular menu, the sea scallops appetizer showed off the kitchen's skills at the grill — our scallops were slightly crusty on the outside, mellow on the inside. They came with a simply seasoned risotto.
Our favorite entrees were from the regular menu. The sliced beef tenderloin, served with creamed spinach and crispy fries, was faultless. Linwoods seasons, grills and slices its meat as well as anybody, and the sides are prepared with attention and finesse. The roasted chicken entree, which the menu advises takes 30 minutes to prepare, is another testament to Linwoods' commitment to quality. Served with whipped potatoes and sauteed mushrooms, the brown-skinned chicken was juicy and flavorful, salted just enough to draw out natural flavors.
From the spring menu, an apple and chayote slaw added some contrasting crunch to a lovely piece of halibut, but the accompanying harissa butter seemed half-hearted. For me, a sun-dried tomato sauce overwhelmed the other elements of a veal scallopine entree. My tablemates thought otherwise.
Dessert choices run from the rococo, like a raspberry Pavlova featuring a finely turned-out meringue, to the comforting, like milk-chocolate and peanut butter crunch served with caramelized bananas.
The service tends to be attentive but not fawning. It was, at the outset, a little rushed. We weren't in our seats five seconds before we were asked for our order. An adjustment was quickly made, and after that the service was spot-on, unobtrusive and informed.
Linwoods has its act down.
Rating: 4 stars