I ate delicious macaroni and cheese at LeeLyn's Dining Room in Ellicott City, but I wish that I had had something more.
There is nothing more exciting or ephemeral than the trend of "small plate" restaurants. They're not just for tapas anymore, and little dishes -- with smaller prices and the chance for imagination, simplicity or surprise -- invite you to make your own magic dinner.
LeeLyn's offers itself up as our local upscale "small plate" joint, and we started strong with mac and cheese was really delicious. Creamy and thick without grease. That's fun eating, but the magic never picked up again. We ate the crab dip. The pretzel bread was interesting. But we didn't finish the salad -- something that got lost when the greens acquired the Latin touch of corn, onions and beans, the almost-Asian topping of almost-crisp noodles (tortilla strips?), and a drench of creamy dressing.
I had sat down with high hopes and really wanted to order something more. But we were $30 invested already, and Mrs. HowChow pointed out that the menu wasn't "small plates." It was appetizers. Good appetizers, maybe. But nothing more than wings, crab dip, tuna, tempura vegetables, and on. I almost split a crab cake because other folks seemed to be enjoying the special. Instead, we sat back and realized that no one goes home hungry after mac and cheese and crab dip. We paid and left.
Some people really like LeeLyn's, which made BillZ's well-reasoned "Nearly Best" list in the Live in Howard blog. But I have been to Woodberry Kitchen. Everyone can't match that place, but the "small plate" magic comes from freedom. If I'm picking a bunch of plates, the kitchen is free to offer dishes that are simple or seasonal or electrically unique. A roasted pear with salt and honey. A flat bread with blue cheese and mustard cream. I smile just writing out the names.
Iron Bridge Wine Company pulls off that imagination. Mrs. HowChow still talks about a "burger, fries and shake" of bite-sized meat and the perfect burst of strawberry. LeeLyn's doesn't charge any less than Woodberry or Iron Bridge, and it serves up some good food like the salad's chicken topping -- somehow blackened, still juicy, and sliced beautifully thin. I'm just not sure why the menu had a dozen pub favorites, but nothing seasonal and nothing that I hadn't eaten somewhere else.
Take my disappointment in context. I'm disappointed, in part, because LeeLyn's offers itself up as special and because it's a charming place with some cozy spots and a patio. I'm sort of echoing BillZ's "wishes" for 2009 when he talked about the opportunity for places to serve small plates that aren't a huge investment. Creating an imaginative menu is certainly beyond my skills, but I hope that someone will come along and give it a try.
If you're looking for small plates, definitely try Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia or Ranazul in Fulton, where you want to end the meal with sopapias. (Update: BillZ also reminds me in the comments below that Bistro Blanc serves small plates.) And you can't go wrong driving into Baltimore to Woodberry Kitchen, one of my favorite places in recent years.
LeeLyn's Dining Room
9495 Old Annapolis Road
Ellicott City, MD 21042
NEAR: LeeLyn's is actually very easy to reach. It's right off Rte 108 just west of Rte 29. You turn north at the light for Columbia Road. (Right if you're going west from Rte 29.) Turn right on Old Annapolis Road and go to the end. LeeLyn's is built into a building with a liquor store. The entrance sort of faces Rte 108. We wandered around the patio for a while because we parked in the back.