Howard County Winter Restaurant Weeks kick off on January 17 and offer you an excuse to get out of the house and explore some great food.
The theme for 2011 is "international flair," but the attraction from January 17 to 31 remains special prix fixe menus where you get to splurge. You need to commit some cash -- $10-19 for lunch and $29-41 for dinner -- but you get an extra course or a special preparation.
As of today, I'd highlight the relocated Aida Bistro in Columbia. This would be a fun way to try out the new, larger space. I also like the menus that have been posted by Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia ($29 dinners like a poached pear salad, chipotle and chocolate braised beef shortribs, and dessert) and Portalli's in Ellicott City ($30 dinners like calamari, a blood orange-poached snapper escabeche and s'more made with homemade shortbread). To go all out, consider the $40 dinner at Ranzul in Fulton where you get four courses like a pear salad, fish tacos, short ribs and creme brulee.
Check out the list of restaurants -- particularly those that have been updated to show their special menus. I'm going to keep an eye on Bistro Blanc in Glenelg because restaurant weeks seem designed for kitchen that do something special. You agree to a big meal, and they try to show you why you should come back all year long.
(Update: Check out Trip Klaus' comment below. That's a voice worth following, and he highlights the Cafe de Paris lunch because it's $10 and Victoria, which upscaled the lunch to $19 but has a menu that still interests him. Also, check out Paul and Dennis' video promoting Restaurant Weeks.)
Remember that I'm the hometown cheerleader when I say that I can't just ignore the list of restaurants. The theme is "international flair," but, on the current list, Union Jacks qualifies as ethnic food. I get that the promotion is aimed at expensive kitchens, and you get lovely French, Italian and Mexican options. But the list was flexible enough to include Looney's and Union Jacks, which we agree is your hometown spot for $1 drinks during "power hour" but doesn't even mention food on its main Web page. There wasn't a single Asian restaurant willing to join restaurant weeks?
(Update: vamunmdg makes a good point in a comment about pricing when you share dishes and don't have appetizers, but I could imagine sushi or Indian places doing courses. Many Indian places already have thalis or special menus.)