Quaint county pub wows with creative, locally sourced cuisine

Recently, a German friend was trying to come up with an English phrase to describe the delight when something is much better than anticipated-a positive twist on the idea of "bait and switch." I couldn't think of a colloquialism beyond "pleasantly surprised," though that phrase didn't seem sufficiently potent.

Of course, I'd heard good things about McFaul's IronHorse Tavern (2260 Cromwell Bridge Road, [410] 828-1625, mcfaulsironhorsetavern.com) and had seen the packed parking lot on a recent drive down Cromwell Bridge Road. But I'd assumed that the popularity had as much to do with location as quality. Positioned on the line where strip malls abruptly transition to rolling hills, the Sanders Corner spot is a convenient watering hole for exurbanite commuters harried from the beltway. Indeed, when I'd called for a reservation, I was told the bar gets packed at 6 p.m.

To say we were pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The IronHorse is clearly much more than happy-hour refreshment after a long week.

Don't be put off by the cardstock menu, with its festive fonts and green shamrocks designating house specials. This is no Irish bar, and it's more than a gussied-up gastropub. McFaul's IronHorse has a solid menu of regional favorites, it's a something-for-everyone kind of place with a strong leaning to local.

The new chef, Evan Orser, developed his fine dining chops at north-country stalwarts Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix and Josef's Country Inn in Fallston. More recently, he opened Looney's Pub in Bel Air and worked at the Harp in Perry Hall. At the IronHorse, the chef seems to tone down the fussy preparations of his early training so the integrity of the ingredients shines through.

The best place to start is at the raw bar. Oysters are sold by the piece, with a nightly selection. We ordered a mix of smooth Sewansecotts from Virginia and briny Blue Points from Connecticut. There's a healthy list of oyster shooters-shucked oysters swimming in vodka infused with horseradish, bacon, or lobster essence. Succulent oysters also show up in the stew ($7)-we found three fat ones in a thick, buttery broth laced with Worcestershire sauce (we could have sworn it was sherry), a starter duly dubbed by our party as "to die for."

Appetizers are fairly elaborate and portioned for sharing, ranging from the trainwreck sushi roll-ahi tuna with seaweed salad and sticky rice-to blackened shrimp arranged on a fried grit cake with Andouille sausage.

The double lamb lollipops ($15) were tender and thick, salty with a hint of rosemary, with both a dollop of tzatziki and mustard sauce for dipping, and a frill of lettuce on the side. A trio of plump seared scallops ($15) came with a chilled orzo salad dotted with cherry tomatoes.

Main courses continued the theme of solid proteins, enhanced but not masked by presentation. The barbecued chicken ($21), a leg and thigh from Albright Farms, was glazed in sweet strawberry and came with chopped sauteed chard and roasted rosemary potatoes. Pan-seared halibut ($27) had a refreshing, summery watermelon-and-tomato salsa and was topped with sweet white lumps of crab. The ribeye steak ($30)-from nearby Roseda-though on the gristly side, was seared to a delicious char, and offered with two sides from an extensive list that includes applesauce, grilled asparagus, and mac 'n' cheese.

The wine list is varied and not too expensive (bottles of red range in price from $27-$90) but, oddly, doesn't list vintages. Even so, we ordered a pinot noir from Oregon and were pleasantly surprised (there's that phrase again) to be presented with a 2008-a very good year for that variety. I was also pleased to see a handful of local wines, including a Basignani cabernet and the chamourcin/merlot from Boordy, just down the road.

Orser says that one of his goals is to support local businesses, and putting local wines on the menu-even a few-is proof of that commitment. He's also sought out other small purveyors, like Sasscer's cakes, the small, downtown-Baltimore baker from whom he gets an array of cheesecakes and a delectable layer cake. The ice cream is from Prigel Family Creamery, another Glen Arm business.

The longstanding IronHorse predecessor, Sanders Corner, was mostly known for its highly caloric breakfasts and its expansive covered deck overlooking treetops and rolling hills. The breakfast is no longer, but the porch-it seats about 80-remains and will certainly continue to be a draw. Inside, the place has been gutted and renovated; calm rooms are decorated with local scenes (including one with photos by Baltimore legend A. Aubrey Bodine).

The pub vibe lives in the bar area, with its flat-screen TVs, sports memorabilia, and $1 Natty Boh and hot dogs when the Orioles play (home or away). When I asked the chef about specials, he assumed I was asking about events like live music on weekends and trivia contests on Monday nights. If he's modest about the food, he needn't be. A meal at McFaul's IronHorse practically guarantees that you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Open Monday to Wednesday 11 a.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight

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