County Cork: good food, fun atmosphere

When they opened Eldersburg's County Cork Wine Pub in 2010, business partners Arlene Stecher and Chris McManus were thinking of their neighbors.

McManus and Stecher, both Eldersburg residents, wanted to build a spot where adults could gather with their friends, enjoying good food and drinks.

They succeeded — and those neighbors have noticed.

On a recent Thursday night, County Cork Wine Pub was packed with couples and chatty groups of friends. We lucked into the last available spot, a high-top table in an alcove toward the back of the restaurant.

The only downside of our semi-hidden location: We weren't immediately on our waitress's radar, so ordering drinks took longer than we would have liked.

But once those drinks came, they were worth the wait. Though Cork is a wine bar, its cocktail list is a good one.

The Eldersburg Martini ($10), a mixture of Van Gogh Blue vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and pear nectar, was a lovely pale orange, with just enough bite to balance the sweet floral flavors of elderflower and pear.

The Cork & Bull ($8) was a fizzy combination of Bulldog Gin, Cointreau, Moscato and port served in a wineglass. On our first sip, we mistook the drink for sangria — until we tasted the bracing backbone of gin.

A mix-and-match cheese board ($12 for three selections; $19 for five) was an excellent backdrop for cocktails. We opted for three choices from a short but thoughtful list of options.

Carefully arranged on a large wooden board, the cheeses arrived with warm crostini, apple slices, grainy mustard, guava paste and herb-marinated olives.

Creamy Monocacy Ash, a goat cheese made at Cherry Glen Farm in Montgomery County, had just enough blue-cheese funk to be interesting without scaring off less adventurous eaters.

A slab of marbled Cahill cheddar from Ireland was sharp and tangy — and the most Irish part of the meal. (Though County Cork is named for an Irish location, it's more of a wine bar than an Irish pub.)

Our favorite part of the board was duck ham, made in house. The ham reminded us of thick-cut bacon, but with the rich flavor of duck.

An additional dish of olives ($5), plus a bowl of Marcona almonds ($5) served warm and tossed with rosemary, added to the spread.

Entrees, though satisfying, could benefit from some of the cheese board's simplicity.

"Airline" chicken saltimbocca ($17) — so named because the chicken's wing was still attached, not because it resembled airplane food — was tender and juicy, garnished with prosciutto, fontina and a herb-cranberry sauce that had us thinking about Thanksgiving. The flavors worked, but there were a lot of them.

The same was true of black and bleu filet tips ($16), blackened beef tips that were generously seasoned but not overly spicy. Dressed with savory roasted shallot demiglace and bleu cheese crumbles, the individual flavors sometimes competed for dominance.

To its credit, a dish of scallops ($24) in blood orange sauce, served over mushroom risotto, kept the focus on a few key ingredients.

The risotto was creamy and elegant; the mushrooms lent it earthiness.

Unfortunately, the scallops were slightly overcooked. They still made a good match for the risotto, but with their tougher texture, they overwhelmed the delicate blood orange sauce.