REVIEW: Linwoods – Excellence for 25+ years

linwoods-logoLinwoods is a special restaurant.

Somehow owner/chef Linwood Dame has managed to stay at the top of his game for 25+ years (he opened Linwoods back in 1988).   There are many restaurants in greater Baltimore who strive and yearn to achieve such consistent excellence but the restaurant business can be very tough and even restaurants that achieve a certain level of excellence find that maintaining it over years can prove to be an elusive goal.  Active personal involvement by Linwood seems part of the key to maintaining such a high level of excellent – particularly during the dinner service, you may likely find Linwood supervising the kitchen, greeting regulars and keeping an eye on what’s happening in the dining room.

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The dining room maintains its original classic look.  The kitchen is open to the dining room (you can sit at an adjoining counter and watch the kitchen staff go through their paces).  The walls are done in a mix of a cool gray with cherry wood paneling.  There’s a mix of some banquette sitting but with mostly heavy white linen covered free-standing tables.

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Small things change – there are frosted crystal glass vases where once there were flowers and subtle changes in selection of art but the dining room still has the understated elegance that you might expect from an upscale club.

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Our friend Rita joined us for lunch at Linwoods on a summer afternoon in early 2014/July.  We were seated promptly, menus appeared, water glasses were filled and a hot roll appeared on each of our bread plates.  We rec’d one copy of the prix fix luncheon menu (3 courses for $24).  (But…  would it have been that much of an expense to provide us with three copies instead of one that we ended up sharing and passing back and forth?)

The regular luncheon menu included a dozen appetizers ($9 to $20), 5 entree salads ($19 – $25), 5 sandwiches (ranging from a $15 hamburger with fries to a $21 steak sandwich.  6 seafood options ranged from a single Crab Cake ($19) to a “Low Country Shrimp & Grits” ($24).

Rita and I both decided to go with the three course prix fix menu ($24) offerings.    Rita started with a Caesar salad followed by BBQ salmon.   It came with a side of fresh corn which she avoids; she hesitated in asking for something else but, after Marty and I encouraged her to ask about a substitution,  our server suggested over a half dozen options for her to select from (she decided on sauteed spinach).    John started with an iceberg salad with blue cheese dressing (and warm bacon!) follow by a main course of a small filet (medium rare please!).   Marty decide to go from the main menu and decided to start with Gazpacho ($9) followed by the Crab Cake ($19).

The appetizer course elicited three “Thumbs Up!’ from us!

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

 The preparation and presentation of the Gazpacho was interesting:  Diced veggies surrounded by a rich broth filled a large martini glass; the mix of veggies and broth were not pureed  but maintained their separate integrity.  Marty raved about it (if he had a pre-lunch cocktail or two to loosen his inhibitions, I swear he would have swiped the inside of the martini glass with his finger to get every last drop out! <Wink>)

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While the bacon addition to the Iceberg wedge cost a $1 extra, the amount of warm from the grill bacon really exceeded any expectations.  The wedge of Iceberg lettuce had been gently separated and layers of both dressing and bacon thoughtfully inserted in pockets from top to bottom.  (The abundance of blue cheese dressing and bacon was over the top;  John thought it was delicious! )

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Our main courses produced another round of satisfaction.  Rita’s salmon arrived “well done” (as she requested) along with sides of grilled potato and sauteed spinach.  She looked pretty happy!

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Marty was delighted with the arrival of his crab cake accompanied by fries, slaw and an arrangement of red and heirloom yellow cherry tomatoes.  The crab cake had little filler and Marty declared it to be the best crab cake that he’s had in awhile.  Somehow, he managed to make “All Gone” and declared his main course to be “Thumbs Up!” class.

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John’s filet was formidable – it arrived topped with fried onions and a mix of sauteed summer vegetables. When he cut into the filet, it was exactly medium rare and rosy pink inside that he hoped for.  The beef was incredibly tender and each mouthful was a pleasure.  The fried onions and mixed veggies made for a “one, two” counterpoint against the filet which underlined the thoughtfulness of the kitchen.

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Following our main course, Marty perhaps wisely decided against any dessert.   Rita and I pondered our third course choices very carefully before Rita decided on a Chocolate Sundae and John decided on Raspberry Sorbet. We had to squelch the “ooo’s and ah’s” that we felt when the desserts arrived.  Rita’s Sundae was accompanied by a large biscotti covered in whipped cream (She donated half each to Marty and John – the whipped cream was amazingly rich and thick and totally unlike any whipped cream that we had ever tasted out of a “Redi-Whip” can!).   John’s single (but large!) scoop of sorbet sat on top of a large mound of blueberries and raspberries.   Both left Rita and John feeling something bordering on dessert-induced ecstatic satisfaction!  Marty and John enjoyed a cup of coffee (a somewhat eyebrow raising $3.45  while Rita’s ice tea cost $3.35)

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Service during our meal was a pleasure.  Additional rolls were offered (without asking), water glasses discretely re-filled.   Particularly noticeable was that the dishes for each course were not removed until all three of us had finished.   In (too!) many restaurants, the staff starts removing dishes from in front of a diner when they have finished regardless of whether other people at the table are still eating.   It’s hard not to feel that this is perhaps a tactic (hopefully subconscious) to have the diners who haven’t finished to hurry up and finish their course so the restaurant can “turn over” the table to the next set of diners.   It’s good to see that Linwood’s avoid that pratfall.

Undeniably, Linwood’s elegance, quality of food and preparation, and service come at a cost – our three lunches averaged about $30 (with tax but before tip) a person.  John and Marty rationalized that this “lunch” would be our “dinner” today and that we would be eating lightly – if at all – later that evening.

Do those lunch time prices fill you with trepidation about dinner prices?  Well, while dinner entrees at Linwood’s top out just under $50, the dinner time menu includes a burger with “frites” for $15 or five versions of pizzas prepared in the kitchen’s wood-fired oven for $15-$17.

Many people consider Linwood’s a special occasion place and we can’t contest that.   But every now and then, it’s fun and revitalizing to indulge in a $30 lunch if your wallet can survive the hit.    (Why? Gee Whiz! Because you’re worth it! <Wink>)

FACTS:   Linwoods;   Owings Mills; 25 Crossroads Drive;  410.356.3030;  http://www.linwoods.com/ ; Full Bar; Limited Vegetarian Options;  Open for lunch Mon- Fri;  for dinner 7 days a week starting at 5 pm;  Large adjacent free parking lot; no valet parking.

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