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Omnivore

Turf's Up

Timonium's Turf Inn is Back. But is it Any Better?


Christopher Myers

Turf Inn

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 2/11/2004

The Turf Inn wasn't itself for a while. It was something else, a ribs franchise, but now it's the Turf Inn again and it's been renovated and expanded. Light fare is available in the sprawling tavern side of the building, where a healthy slate of live performances is scheduled Tuesday through Saturday nights. The dining rooms, adjacent to the tavern, have been renovated, too. It's safe to say it's become a destination spot, and that from appearances on a recent Saturday night it seems to be doing well.

When we arrived, the smaller room was given over to a single large party. The larger room, where we dined, is comfortable and bright but generic. And the Turf Inn impressed us throughout as a generic restaurant. We left there not entirely unsatisfied but not stimulated or surprised, either. I've said before here that there's nothing wrong with this kind of restaurant, and at times I've mostly believed it.

Now I think I've changed, and I want more. This need for the unusual and the challenging--even when it doesn't succeed--has developed steadily over the past year and not incidentally from the reality of having to report on the experience later. It's an absolute pleasure to tell people about an experience that felt fresh and exciting. I still believe, though, that a restaurant that feels ordinary, and has a familiar menu, is more than capable of producing a memorable meal. Last year, Coburn's Tavern, from initial appearances a standard-issue Canton grill, delighted us with a meal in which the ordinary was anything but. So, I'm openly biased, but I'm always hoping to be proved wrong.

The Turf Inn's menu plays it safe: It includes a dozen or so Italian specialties (e.g. chicken parmigiana, baked ziti), a dozen or so seafood dishes (shrimp scampi, broiled orange roughy), and a handful of meat and poultry entrées (prime rib, charbroiled chicken breast). For our first courses, we chose calamari ($.6.95), a bookmaker's salad ($6.95), and a crock of French onion soup ($3.50). The soup was just fine. Topped with ample provolone cheese and filled with fresh onion flavor, it made a good case for the expected. Somewhere an enterprising chef is reinventing this simple classic, but as long as the cheese is melted brown and bubbly, we're not looking for much else. The salad included strips of Genoa salami, provolone, and prosciuttini ham and was served with a house Italian dressing. For a $6.95 appetizer salad, the salad was satisfactory--the ingredients promised were present--but a dish called a bookmaker's salad suggests something not necessarily more elegant but definitely more elaborate.

The calamari was not very good. If there are two kinds of fried calamari appetizers, one in which the squid is treated as something worth tasting and another in which the squid is simply a vehicle for breading and frying, this was the second kind. And its underseasoned, heavy breading wasn't even a sterling example of that.

None of us loved his or her entrée, but the crab cake platter ($21.95) pleased most. There was evident lumpage in the cake, and it was broiled adroitly. Not the best version we've tried recently but certainly worth trying. Accompanying fries were underdone and not very tasty, though. A dinner special ($21.95) announced a prime rib stuffed with crab imperial, and apparently "stuffed" sometimes means that one thing is placed on top of another. I didn't say anything when the piece of steak I tasted was fatty, but later the orderer confessed that the steak was fatty throughout. The crab topping was handsomely broiled and silky, though.

Cacciatore is a "hunter-style" preparation, so wanting some precision or artfulness from chicken cacciatore ($13.95) might be unreasonable when heartiness is what matters most. Still, the version here struck us as just a plate full of ingredients--mushrooms, peppers, marinara sauce--that never coalesced into a thing. Neither was it really that hearty. Veal Maltaise (spelled "Malenaise" on the menu) sets a lightly breaded veal cutlet in a Chablis butter sauce. This sauce, the color of a circus peanuts, was funny-tasting, with notes of orange juice and something else that proved elusive. Little veal taste survived the breading and frying.

Even the things we liked best--the crab cake and the onion soup--succeeded more by not being bad than by being memorably good. But keep in mind my biases--new is better than old, spicy is better than bland, surprising is better than satisfying. Unless someone gets hurt.

Maltaise falcon: omnivore@citypaper.com.

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