Where: 609 Melvin Ave., Annapolis
Hours: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: AE, CB, DC, MC, V
Features: Continental and Italian cuisine
Call: 268-2609 (direct from Baltimore) There don't seem to be any woods anywhere near the place, and no one would think of showing up in L. L. Bean flannels and lumberjack boots. Let's face it, Northwoods is a silly name for this restaurant, which is pretty in pale pink, serenely hung with Impressionist art, and located on a quiet suburban side street removed from Annapolis's historical and tourist hub. And while that name suggests rugged American chow (if not moose and lynx), Northwoods' fare is Continental, with Mediterranean accents.
We were ushered to our table by the owner, who impressed us, in those few moments, with his low-key humor and gallantry. That first impression indicated that this was a restaurant where swift, professional service is a priority; the impression was borne out by our experience, although our waitress did occasionally, and irritatingly, interrupt our conversations mid-sentence. (Noise and smokers can also be troublesome here.)
Northwoods is phenomenally popular -- reservations are essential even on weekdays -- with a culinary reputation extending far beyond Annapolis city limits. All of this naturally fosters high expectations. While these were not --ed, I will admit to a tiny bit of a letdown. Our dinners were expertly executed and nicely presented, but didn't provide that thrill of discovery that attended visits to such well-heralded out-of-towners as Tauraso's in Frederick or Cecile's in Easton.
The best part of our meal came at the beginning. The veal pate, a special, was daintily proportioned, just two small rounds on toast, but had a marvelously lively flavor, with tongue-tingling bursts of peppercorn. More exciting still were the scallops seviche ($5.95). The usually pillowy raw scallops emerged from their tart marinade with a dense texture and an intense flavor, part citrus and part sea.
Shrimp Gibralter ($15.75) was a tempting combination of good things: jumbo shrimp stuffed with crab meat (simple and unsullied, not Imperial), wrapped in puff pastry and served with Choron sauce. The tastes were complementary, the concept elegant, and the Choron -- sort of a pink Hollandaise flavored with tomato and tarragon -- luscious enough to eat with a spoon.
My chicken was imported all the way from New Zealand. Was this trip necessary? The "poussin grille" ($16.25) had a lovely sweet sauce of apricot and Grand Marnier, but the bird was not particularly meaty, and was frustratingly difficult to eat. The morsels I managed to pry off the bone just weren't worth the effort.
House salads, dressed with a creamy Caesar, were satisfying, but the vegetables (carrots, potato, green beans), while perfectly steamed and colorful, were unseasoned and dull.
The restaurant boasts one of those heavily laden dessert trolleys that makes gluttons go weak in the knees. We dug into two cakes; one, a sponge cake layered with key lime filling and coconut, had a pleasant tropical airiness, but the chocolate mousse cake, iced in yet more satiny chocolate -- now that's what desserts are about!
More good news: Northwoods offers a special deal any evening but Saturday -- a full meal, including the diner's choice of appetizer, entree and dessert, for $21.95. Not a bad deal for an elegant, if not forever-memorable, meal.