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Jay Comfort, the new owner of The Ironhorse, an Ashland standby for decades, wants to "get away from being a fine-dining destination and become much more a community gathering place." While that might be a welcome concept in area dining, it would be as rare as a non-luxury condo conversion.

The stated goal of Comfort and his co-owner and chef, Jaime Gulden, is to transform the Ironhorse into "an upscale bistro" with brasserie-style service. But after four months at the helm, he has delivered results more upscale than bistro, with dinner entrees nudging or slipping into the $30 range.

Savvy diners in the city have shown they will pay top dollar for superior food, captivating surroundings and/or a fun atmosphere -- think Millie's, Sensi and Can Can —but it's problematic if they have to drive half an hour on traffic-clogged I-95 for merely good food served in a drab interior.

Thus Comfort is taking a gamble tampering with a menu that attracted regulars whose loyalty under the previous owner is memorialized in "Hall of Fame" sandwiches named Karen McCreary, Gretta Berry, Anna and Ned Stiles, Sheila Hunter and Bill Glave.

There are problems at The Ironhorse, but fortunately they don't originate in the kitchen, where Gulden turns out high-quality dishes that aren't afraid to veer from the ordinary.

The spring dinner menu seeks to strike a balance between old and new. Inventive entrees ($17.50-$29.50), such as crab-stuffed trout over hash and Vietnamese-style shrimp linguine, along with appetizers of roasted garlic with blue cheese, charcuterie of Serrano ham, country pté, dried salami and olives, share the spotlight with chicken, pork chop and steak entrees, and appetizers of crab cake and shrimp-over-grits from the nearby Byrd Mill.

A lamb shank braised with rosemary on butter beans over sweet-and-sour greens was generous in size and pleasing in taste, but a 12-ounce rib-eye steak rubbed with chili pepper was ordinary and overpriced at $31.

At lunch, Chef Gulden's flair was evident in a pair of ample pork loin chops flanked with cranberries, fingerling potatoes and greens. Tarragon chicken salad was tasty, but "baguette points" turned out to be one point. Similarly at dinner, the bread offering was stingy — four thin slices of baguette.

Other lunch entrees ($6.75-$12.50) include salmon, barbecue, minute steak, a chicken grinder and the aforementioned "named" sandwiches, which include hot pastrami, warm roast beef, a burger, grilled vegetables, club and albacore tuna salad. In-house-made desserts ($5.50) include crème brûlée, Key lime pie and a lip-smacking white-chocolate bread pudding.

In an effort to build new relations with long-standing customers, Comfort has retained most of the old staff and has been making other changes incrementally. But while regulars may put up with quirks and shortcomings, first-time diners are unlikely to be as forgiving. My first visit was brief. We left after the hostess escorted us to a tiny table for two and refused our request to move to one of several vacant larger tables, saying they were reserved.

Next, calling in advance on a recent Saturday, I was told that lunch is served in the main dining room, which is nonsmoking until 2:30, and after that in the bar, where it is permitted. However, when we arrived at 1:40, the dining room was closed. We were ushered into the bar, which features a moose head on the wall, a grand piano for open-mic nights and an art deco poster that says "enjoy smoking." Although the waitress assured us "no one will be smoking," three women, two of them smokers, soon were seated at the adjoining table. Graciously, they agreed not to light up.

Wine service was a problem twice. At dinner, the pour was decidedly less than that given a nearby diner, and at lunch the pinot grigio was dark enough to be mistaken for white zinfandel, or vinegar, and a sip revealed a taste that was even worse. Our server took it away and replaced it with a chardonnay.

Comfort, who previously operated a bistro in Fredericksburg and worked in catering with Gulden in Washington, D.C., has the experience and know-how to overcome the inherited problems at The Ironhorse. He's giving himself 18 months to make the restaurant a gathering place in the little community that thinks of itself as "the center of the universe." S

The Ironhorse Restaurant ($$$ NSS)
100 S. Railroad Ave., Ashland
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Bar menu: Monday-Saturday, 2:30-11 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 p.m.,
Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

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