Some occasions require a touch of romance.
Nothing too formal or over the top — no scattered rose petals or strolling violins. Just good, interesting food served capably in a special setting.
Baldwin's Station in historic Sykesville is just the place.
Housed in a renovated 19th-century train station on the Old Main Line, the restaurant straddles the border of Howard and Carroll counties.
Baldwin's Station's current incarnation opened in 1997. Owner Stewart Dearie is a restaurant veteran who managed the Conservatory at the Peabody Hotel and Antrim 1844 in Taneytown.
Restored by the town of Sykesville during the 1980s, Baldwin's Station still feels surprisingly relevant. The space retains a sense of history, with warm old wood, exposed brick and charming touches like station benches and stained glass.
Food is sometimes an afterthought in restaurants with exceptionally pretty settings, since they can draw a crowd on the strength of decor alone. Fortunately, this is not the case at Baldwin's Station.
Chef Dustin Heflin turns out sophisticated American food that's well executed and familiar, but incorporates small, welcome surprises.
On a recent Thursday night, our meal started with an appetizer of seared scallops perched on top of a relish of corn, tomato and red onion ($13).
The scallops were lovely — seared to a crusty brown on the outside, but shiny and just cooked through in the center. Though the relish sounded more appropriate for summertime, the vegetables tasted fresh; their bright flavors complemented the savory fish.
On top of the scallops lay two charred slices of baby leek, adding the tiniest bit of smoke to the dish.
Dearie uses his wines by the glass as a way to audition selections for the permanent wine list. The Chalone sauvignon blanc ($6.95) should make the cut. Though the wine wasn't a perfect match for the vegetable relish, its citrusy flavor neatly balanced the savory elements of the scallop dish.
Entrees were equally impressive. A large plateful of pumpkin ravioli ($25) was soft and savory.
The house-made pasta was tender and luscious; the noodles alone would have made a satisfying meal. But stuffed with slightly sweet pumpkin filling and tossed with a buttery sauce accented by sweet onions, garlic and apple, the pasta was a hearty, meat-free dinner.
Even heartier, braised short ribs ($27) were tender and moist. The ribs were slowly cooked in apple cider, infusing the meat with sweet fruit flavor.
Served over chunky, well-seasoned sweet potatoes, with a side of bright green beans, the dish was lovely take on the popular cut of meat.
A fruity Belmondo pinot noir ($7.95) worked well with both dishes, though next time we would order something more substantial to pair with the short ribs.
The wait staff appeared to work in teams — three different waiters checked on us at regular intervals. For the most part, that system worked well; we felt assured that if we needed something, we'd have it in a heartbeat.
But at a few points, it wasn't completely efficient. Early on, the host took our order for a bottle of Samuel Smith oatmeal stout ($7) — a complex beer we were happy to see on the menu. However, when the drink was delivered (by someone else) the beer had morphed into a Sam Adams.
Later in the meal, our glasses of pinot noir took surprisingly long to arrive. At that point, we'd seen several servers, so we weren't sure whom to ask about the status of our drinks.
Both problems were rectified immediately. The Sam Adams was quickly swapped out for the stout, and the wine arrived with apologies (and no charge). As a result, they felt like blips in otherwise top-notch service.
After dinner, we lingered over coffee and warm bread pudding ($7.50) studded with blackberries and served with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream.
Many restaurants make bread pudding in house. It's often quite good, but some restaurants make the mistake of reheating the pudding in the microwave, resulting in a dessert that is boiling hot in some spots but cold in others. Baldwin's Station's was better than most simply because it was heated properly — and evenly.
Having a good time, we considered prolonging our stay with a scotch — Baldwin's Station boasts an impressive selection — in the cozy, inviting bar.
But in the end, we decided to leave the bar for another night. Maybe for the next special occasion.
Back story: Fine-dining veteran Stewart Dearie opened Baldwin's Station in 1997 in a Sykesville railway station built in 1883.
Parking: Lot in front.
Signature dish: Short ribs, braised in apple cider until fork-tender and infused with sweet apple flavor, are served on top of chunky sweet potatoes, with a side of crisp green beans.
Where: 7618 Main St., Sykesville
Contact: 410-795-1041, baldwinstation.com
Open: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (lunch served until 3:30) Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (brunch/lunch served until 3:30) Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]