- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Elkridge Furnace Inn is a pleasant surprise tucked into the eastern corner of Howard County, Md. With the Patapsco River nearby, the historic inn attracts history buffs and food junkies alike.

The architecture of the inn, circa 1744, and the surrounding 16-acre complex provide a unique peek into Maryland’s past. All structures and the site itself are included in the National Register of Historic Places. The inn was established as a tavern in 1744, and an iron-smelting furnace was added about 1750. Today, the inn houses the restaurant as well as a gourmet catering company.

Executive chef Daniel Wecker offers a menu rich with authentic French flavors. The servings are artistically creative presentations.

Mr. Wecker regularly tweaks the order sheet and believes in incorporating into his dishes what the local markets have to offer. “I love to go to the market; I see what is available and let my imagination do the rest,” he says.

Soups, salads, appetizers and main courses can be ordered individually, but just as popular is the inn’s prix fixe menu: three courses for $39; four courses $44; five courses $49.

The baby octopus starter was fresh octopus — quite tender — topped with a citrus vinaigrette and walnut cream. The octopus was lightly breaded and fried; the bright citrus flavor and the rich walnut cream provided a nice contrast.

Pear salad was arugula, caramelized pears, toasted cashews and Gruyere cheese with a white balsamic vinaigrette. This dish highlighted the chef’s knowledge of pairing foods: The balance of tart and sweet and soft and crunchy made the salad an event rather than a course.

Bird’s-nest game hen was a pan-roasted, semiboneless game hen with finely shredded vegetables. The bird was tender and well-matched by the sauce and vegetables. This dish was reminiscent of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner but taken to new heights. The hen and the crackling fire in the room made the chill of the evening melt away.

Duck three ways ($26) offered a pan-seared breast, leg confit, and sliced ballotine with a root-vegetable puree, tiny green beans and a cherry sauce. The breast was perfectly prepared, very moist and tender, and the cherry sauce provided a nice balance. The leg confit was moist and rich, but not as rich as the ballotine, which was quite tasty but could overwhelm some diners.

North African braised lamb is available on the prix fixe menu only. The lamb was exceedingly tender and flavorful. The aromatics, strong but tempting, conjured visions of something too spiced to enjoy, so the subtle flavor of the saffron was a welcome surprise.

The dish was served with harissa, a North African paste of chilies and garlic, for those who want more heat. Couscous and an unusual preparation of cauliflower made this a filling and comforting meal.

Dessert choices for the evening included a blackberry tart and dulce de leche cheesecake. The tart had a rich, buttery crust that was exquisite. The filling exploded with the most intense berry flavors imaginable. The combination of sweet vs. tart was perfect.

The cheesecake was smooth and creamy and accented nicely with chocolate and caramel sauces. It was rich but not over the top.

Bottles of wine are half-price now during dinner hours on Friday and Sunday. The inn also has unique small pours, which allow guests to try smaller glasses of wines recommended by the chef to accompany the different dishes.

The waiters were friendly and knowledgeable but more than a bit overwhelmed on this night. The pacing of the orders did not live up to the rest of the experience, and as the evening went on, we heard more complaints about how long it was taking to get beverages and food.

Hopefully it was just a bad night, because when the food arrives, it is wonderful.

The chef is offering special prix fixe menus for Valentine’s Day, with such delicacies as lobster sabayon, ostrich salad and venison saddle cutlet. Other special events on the calendar include afternoon teas; “Murder and Mayhem at the Manor,” which includes a buffet dinner and clues to a crime that is solved over dessert; and Sunday History Suppers, in which lectures are accompanied by period suppers. For information or to request a tour, call 410/379-9336.

RESTAURANT: Elkridge Furnace Inn, 5745 Furnace Ave., Elkridge, Md.; 410/379-9336

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner only Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 4 to 8 p.m.

PRICES: Dinner soups and salads $6 to $12; appetizers $10 to $12; main courses $18 to $32; prix fixe: three courses $39, four courses $44, five courses $49; dessert tray offerings $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: On-site parking

ACCESS: Limited

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