FOOD REVIEW: Northern Lights Bar and Grill

The Crowne Plaza's restaurant is legs ahead of standard hotel fare, but falls short in top-shelf execution.

Last year at about this time I had a little more free time on my hands, so I decided to hop in a car and spend a month driving around the country.

The upside of being impulsive about a month-long adventure was that I ended up in some very unusual and very exciting places (where, believe me, I sampled some amazing food).

The downside, however, is that when you have no plan, you tend to have nowhere to sleep, so I found myself a very frequent hotel guest.  Being a traveler and a foodie, I have sampled more than my fair share of hotel food, and more often than not it left me longing for a dry airplane meal. But now and then hotel food can surprise you, so this week I decided to give a try.

Located in the swanky but welcoming atrium of the Crowne Plaza Baltimore North - Hunt Valley hotel, Northern Lights at first glance seems like little more than a hotel bar.  As you enter, however, you’ll find that not only is there a decent sized dining room hiding inside, but also the restaurant sits adjacent to the pool and features an outdoor tiki bar as well.

The interior bar has clean, modern décor with heavy wood and dim lighting. The rectangular bar provides plenty of seating with flat-screen televisions in all directions and a great selection of signature cocktails.  While the beer list is relatively small, all your major options are covered with a few imports sprinkled in, so you should be able to find something to take that traveler’s edge off no matter what your taste.

The tiki bar portion of Northern Lights, while only open in summertime and even then only Thursday through Saturday, is worth a visit, as the poolside bar serves a variety of summertime and Hawaiian-themed cocktails. 

The menu at the tiki bar is not much to speak of. It's basically a collection of finger foods and fried snacks such as loaded south of the border fries or the chicken wing basket (also served with fries), but if you’re in the mood to munch on something greasy while you enjoy a very decent margarita by the pool, this is the place for you.

As far as the real menu goes, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when I took a look.

Northern Lights clearly is making an effort to separate itself from the likes of “hotel food” with a menu housing some very upscale and very interesting options such as a roasted red pepper bisque, a filet and Creole cake special, or the coffee-dusted ribeye. 

It would be very easy for the Northern Lights chefs to stick to the basics and churn out the same old food they know people will shrug their shoulders and eat, but instead they’ve created a menu that actually features some excitement. Not to mention they also feature a large lunch menu, and a Sunday brunch buffet for only $14 that includes a large selection of breakfast choices plus an omelet and waffle station.

Unfortunately, some of that excitement was tamed for me when the food arrived. While everything was visually appealing and generally tasty, the execution was lacking in most of the dishes. While the mango salsa accompanying our fried scallop appetizer was flavorful, the scallops themselves were overcooked and dry. That coffee-dusted ribeye came out again overcooked, and while the coffee crust gave a nice contrast to the fattiness of the meat, it was sitting atop lumpy rice and very undercooked asparagus. 

So in the end it’s difficult to say exactly how I feel about Northern Lights. If you're comparing it to the thousands of hotel bars I’ve seen over and over, then yes, it seemed to be strides ahead. But for me, it seems Northern Lights is looking to be mentioned in the same discussion as Lutherville’s top dinner destinations, and in that regard, it still has some work to do. 

With some focus on attention to detail and execution, Northern Lights could become one of Lutherville’s hidden gems. While it's not quite there yet, if you’re staying at the Crowne Plaza and looking for a place to grab a drink and a tasty meal, you could do a whole lot worse. 


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