A Columbia Hot Spot Isn't Quite Worth The Drive
Now that we're officially in a recession, it's harder to determine when an empty restaurant is a sign of something lacking in folks' pockets rather than something lacking in the kitchen. But a full house can be equally deceptive: just because a place is wildly popular doesn't necessarily mean it's fabulous. Columbia's Victoria Gastro Pub (8201 Snowden River Parkway,  750-1880) was spectacularly busy on a recent Saturday night, prompting me to wonder if I had found Howard County's gastronomic epicenter (probably not) or simply a lot of hungry suburbanites. But after experiencing the longest three-course dinner of recent memory (clocking in at nearly three and a half hours) with enough highs and lows to make it simply adequate, I'm wondering if the restaurant's main draw is its extensive tap list. Certainly the promise of twenty-three beers on draft (and at least double that in bottles) was what got me into the car and out to Columbia.
A Bennigan's in a former life, the restaurant's interior has been transformed into a warm, amber-hued space; even the copper ceiling in the bar adds to the burnished glow. Though we snagged one of the tall four tops in the bar area, the pub also has two small dining rooms plus booths that line the back of the restaurant and spill into the wait staff's prep area. Try to avoid those unless your idea of people watching is eyeballing the parade of servers running from kitchen to bar and dining room.
Also, if you visit Victoria Gastro Pub on a busy night (and from our experience, that's any time between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on a weekend) make sure you bring your phone so that the folks at the host stand can let you know your table's ready (no buzzers here, though one wonders what they do if you're one of the few people without a cell phone).
The pub's interpretation of the British gastropub movement includes offering a generous rotating selection of micro- or imported brews (Corsendonk Christmas Ale, Bellhaven Wee Heavy, and Anchor Porter were all on tap the night of our visit, though oddly only one local brew was available) and tweaking classic dishes with little extra--like cooking fries in duck fat or adding lobster to macaroni and cheese or jumbo lump crab to flatbreads. But even with those touches, Victoria's menu promises more than it delivers.
That said, a half dozen beautifully plump raw oysters ($14) served with a ginger spiked cocktail sauce and a zippy shallot mignonette suggested more good things would follow. Some did, although the Belgian endive apple salad ($9) needs a little revision to become one of them. It's a good premise: slender leaves of ivory endive paired with crispy, eraser-sized nuggets of lardon (fried fat back), a sliver of apple, a sprinkle of candied pecans, and a tangle of watercress all held together with "creamy Grafton cheddar dressing." While the salty-smoky-sweet combo was inspired, there was far too much dressing on far too little salad, made to look even smaller in an oversized bowl. When several pub sandwiches also cost $9, a $9 salad suggests something more substantial.
The other dishes we tried didn't lack for quantity, so perhaps the salad was an anomaly. For instance, the mushroom and swiss Snake River Farms Kobe burger ($15) was a tower of medium-rare cooked beef, caramelized onions, and truffle cheese--messy, drippy, and delicious. I'm not sure if I could have tasted the difference between the Kobe and the angus (all of the add-ons tend to mask the pureness of the beef flavor), but it was a burger I'd order again, and fries dusted with smoked paprika made an interesting addition. I have tasted the depth of flavor that comes from frying potatoes in duck fat, though, and the ones I ordered to accompany my fish and chips ($15, plus $2 additional for "duck frites") bore no trace of that richness, and the beer battered strips of cod were standard pub fare. The diner who ordered roasted butternut squash risotto ($13) thought it a bit gummy, but marveled that the kitchen turned out a palatable risotto at all considering the volume of orders that were coming through. But the diner who ordered the chorizo meatloaf ($15) was the most disappointed. "I thought it would be spicy," he said sadly, of the mild meaty slices on his plate.
Victoria's desserts included an apple dumpling from Baugher's ($9) and a soft square of pumpkin cinnamon raisin bread pudding ($8), but one of us couldn't pass up the Victoria stout float ($10), an adult version of an ice cream soda with Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout (which clocks in at 9.5 percent alcohol) replacing the root beer. There was some skepticism about the combination of vanilla and espresso gelato, cherries, and stout, but the duskiness of the stout and the espresso tempered the remaining sweetness.
During a busy evening, our server tried to keep up with all of his tables, but the waits between orders were egregiously long, even with the help of Tori Marriner, a young woman who introduced herself as one of the owners to the men at our table (she simply waved to the "ladies").
If, like me, you drive to Columbia for the occasional Merriweather concert or Restoration Hardware jones, a burger and a beer at Victoria are undoubtedly a better option than the plethora of chains clustered at the mall. But, as the risotto eater remarked, you could do just as well driving back to Baltimore.