Standard pre-post disclosure: I've only been to each of these restaurants once, so the reviews only reflect that one experience.
I ate a lot on Saturday. It was a good day.
A busy day, too. My first meal (I'm not counting the 7:30 am cheerios) was brunch at Gertrude's with some of my girl friends from high school. When we get together (more and more sporadically these days, between the kids and the jobs), we have two primary restaurant criteria: location and menu. OK, that's obvious, I guess. Those are pretty basic criteria. But for us, the restaurant has to be relatively convenient to the four of us - two in Towson, one in Bel Air and one holding down the fort in Severna Park. Sometimes we haul ourselves down to the Annapolis area, since all of our families do still live around there, but mostly we end up someplace downtown.
Menu can be a little more tricky. Until very recently, I was the lone red meat eater in the group (actually, I may still be). Alison doesn't eat red meat. Suzanne was fish and veggies only until she got pregnant. (She also said she felt like she wasn't quite as quick-thinking during her pescatarian days, which I find interesting. She's a thoughtful eater. A thoughtful eater who likes the taste of meat.) And Mandy is a straight-up vegetarian. Not a vegan, but she doesn't eat eggs. Plus, she really hates onions. And she worked in a restaurant during college and grad school, so she's very, very leery of eating at most places.
Anyway, that's a long way of saying that we ended up meeting for brunch at Gertrude's, in the Baltimore Museum of Art. The chef, John Shields, is fairly well-renowned for his commitment to local foods and his fresh approach to cooking. Our meal didn't do anything to tarnish that reputation. The food was fairly simple - crab quiche, crab soup, salads, a vegetarian sandwich and french toast with apples - but all nicely executed with good flavor. Plus, I had an excellent mango mimosa.
The only weird thing about the meal was that our waiter totally tried to upsell us to the crabcakes on the "specials" menu, saying that unlike other crab dishes offered, these were made with "Chesapeake Bay crab". If I described his whole spiel, it would probably seem like I was exaggerating; he really went on and on about how the other crab sucks but this is the real thing.
After not ordering the crab cakes, and even sort of making excuses as to why we didn't, he finally took our order and left us alone. At which point, we all looked at each other and were like, "Um, it's MARCH." Not exactly crab season. Which means either the restaurant's doing something illegal (doubtful) or they're using frozen Bay crabmeat. Which is fine, but taste-wise, it's not really more special than, say, frozen North Carolina crabmeat.
It was a weird exchange. But overall, a good meal. And it was nice to stop into the museum shop after brunch. If I'd had more time, I would've loved to actually get into the museum. It's been too long since I've been.
Verdict: I'd go back. Especially for dinner on their wine deal Wednesdays.
Just a few hours later, after depositing Dixon at my parents' house, we were back in the car on our way to Hunt Valley and The Oregon Grille for dinner with Cooper's family in honor of his sister's fiance's birthday.
I'd heard a lot about the restaurant - it seems to be one of those local institutions, even if it hasn't been around forever. It has a very strong reputation for good food and good service - it's one of the few local places I know of that requires jackets for guys after 5.
It's expensive, and the menu is on the old school side, with a definite emphasis on red meat - not a big surprise on either front. When we arrived, I also wasn't surprised to see that the clientele was mostly a little older. There were a handful of families with adult children near us, but mostly it was tables with two or three couples in their 50s or 60s or 70s.
For the next two-ish hours, we did a lot of eating and a bit of drinking...and when we left, I realized just how high my expectations are.
Here's the thing: my meal was fantastic. I had an appetizer of baked artichokes, sundried tomatoes and goat cheese, followed by one of the specials, veal medallions in a red wine and whole grain mustard sauce with arugula and pumpkin gnocchi (actually pumpkin-stuffed gnocchi, as it turned out). Flavors were on point, everything was cooked perfectly, and overall, it was wonderful.
But I do have some issues.
First, the rooms are just a little cramped for my taste. Not terribly, but I didn't feel relaxed. More importantly, the service wasn't perfect. It wasn't bad, by any means, but our waiter left it to Cooper to refill our wine glasses (we were the only two drinking wine - granted, the bottle was next to Cooper and tough to reach, but still). Our plates were cleared before everyone was finished (a particular pet peeve of mine). And the waiter forgot to bring Seth (Cooper's sister's fiance) a beer at one point, and he didn't apologize. (Actually, the way he handled that beer left me wondering if he was being a little condescending because Seth had ordered a beer in the first place. I could have misinterpreted the whole situation, but that's the impression I got. Which is so totally uncool.)
Besides those things, he really wasn't a bad waiter at all. But this is where I come back to my expectations.
I don't expect service to be perfect at, say, Zen West. Decent, yes. But not perfect. For whatever reason, I also don't expect super perfect service at trendier restaurants who cater to a younger demographic. But I expect near perfect service at any restaurant that charges an average of more than $35 for an entree and caters to the over-50 crowd. Waiters and waitresses are human, I understand, so it's not actual mistakes that bother me. You forgot what I ordered? I don't mind telling you again. And sometimes people do forget to bring a beer.
The issues that I most often have with service (Oregon Grille's not alone here) seem to be systemic. The plate-clearing, for example. That's a clear violation of etiquette. Which is codified. Maybe restaurants of a certain caliber should require their waitstaff to read and then take a test on, say, Emily Post. (I realize people have different views on this subject, but when the restaurant in questions is the jackets-on-gentlemen sort, I think it's reasonable to expect an old-fashioned approach to service.)
It's possible that I've had classic fine dining ruined for me by a couple of meals my family had at The Williamsburg Inn when I was in college. The food was always perfect but what I remember more about those evenings was the service. It was amazing. The dining room has an atmosphere of absolute serenity, and the service is friendly, but not overly so, knowledgable, respectful, and there-when-you-need it but not-when-you-don't. I just looked at the menu online and the prices are quite comparable to Oregon Grille's, but the service at the two places is completely mismatched.
So, this is a really long-winded way of saying that I'm not terribly interested in going back to The Oregon Grille soon, despite the fact that I had an excellent meal.
(Final note: I've been mulling over my reactions to Oregon Grille since we left the restaurant on Saturday, and I feel a little guilty about them - like I'm being too harsh. Last night, Cooper pointed out that my expectations might be so high in part because we cook very nice and interesting food at home - food that for some people would be "restaurant food". So when I go to a restaurant, I expect much more than that - something I wouldn't make at home, something SO much better than I would make it at home, and/or outstanding service. He's probably right, but I wish I could learn to let it go and just enjoy sometimes.)
P.S. Now that Urbanspoon is in Baltimore, you can also check out their review pages. For their Oregon Grille page, click here:
And for their Gertrude's page, click here: